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Role Clarity in Times of Change: 3 Steps to Setting Clear Expectations After a RIF

Nicole Klemp

After a layoff or reduction in force (RIF), the employees who remain may be left wondering, now what

It’s typical for employees and even managers to worry about how things will change for them and their remaining team members. As the dust begins to settle after a RIF, confusion can set in, and “who’s doing what” can get a little messy. When this happens, employee role clarity suffers.

Addressing role clarity after layoffs is critical to avoiding a decrease in productivity, engagement, employee morale, and retention. In many cases, a complete reset on role clarification is needed to ensure everyone is on the right track and ready to move forward together into the organization’s next phase.

What is role clarity?

When an employee is clear on what’s expected of them at work and what success in their role looks like, they have role clarity. If there are any gray areas with a person’s responsibilities or an employee and their manager aren’t on the same page, role clarity needs some work.

Role clarity is about much (much) more than having a job title or job description. Job descriptions are good tools for recruiting, but they’re merely an overview of a position and some of the duties it may entail. 

For true role clarity, managers and employees should work together to define job roles, agree on personal goals, and determine how the employee can best contribute to the team.

As Jennie Yang, Vice President of People at 15Five, explains, “When employees have role clarity, they understand specifically what is expected of them in their jobs. They know what responsibilities and outcomes they’re supposed to accomplish, their specific goals, how their work impacts the business’s larger goals, and how their performance will be evaluated and measured. When this clarity is lacking, it can have a significant impact on your team’s engagement and productivity.”

Learn how to manage role clarity with 15Five >

What happens to role clarity after a RIF?

After a major disruption in an organization, leaders may feel inclined to go back to “business as usual.” But ignoring the fact that things have changed after a RIF does remaining employees a disservice. Not addressing changes to individual roles, processes, and organizational goals can muddy the waters and prevent people from moving forward as a productive, unified team.

Your remaining employees need to understand how changes to the business impact them and in what ways their responsibilities and goals will need to shift. Even if managers don’t expect a direct report’s role to change much (or at all) after a RIF, ongoing conversations about expectations are still essential. 

Tackling role clarity head-on can also help remaining team members avoid some of the stressors that commonly develop during and after a RIF. By getting ahead of foreseeable challenges—like an employee working over their capacity or focusing on the wrong tasks—you can avoid a dip in productivity or employee engagement after layoffs.

3 steps for managers to address a lack of role clarity on their teams

Role clarity is a key driver of employee engagement and should be a top priority for managers, especially when leading their teams through a RIF. Read on for three tactics for addressing role clarity to maintain high engagement and performance.

1. Revisit team and individual goals 

A RIF can sometimes result in an unfair or unreasonable redistribution of work. Some organizations make the mistake of trying to accomplish the same goals they had in place previously, but now with fewer people. Dumping more work on your high performers who are already working at capacity is a great way to drive them right out the door.

When major restructuring or layoffs occur, team leaders and managers must reassess organizational, team, and individual objectives based on who remains and what skills each person brings to the table. 

2. Fill team gaps with upskilling and competencies

When employees with certain responsibilities or skill sets are let go as part of a RIF, gaps can develop on a team. While this presents a bit of a challenge for managers to overcome, it can actually create a great professional development opportunity for remaining employees to gain new skills. Identifying these gaps can open a path for high performers who want to grow into new roles and job responsibilities on the team. 

Reevaluate the team structure and existing processes and reassign job duties as needed based on each employee’s abilities, capacity, and competencies. Competencies are measurable skills, attributes, characteristics, and knowledge that help an employee perform their job successfully. (Check out our Ultimate Guide to Competencies for more.)

3. Have career conversations

After a RIF, managers and direct reports should have an ongoing dialogue around expectations and job responsibilities post-RIF. Employees should feel comfortable speaking up if there’s an area of their role they’re unclear about or a new challenge they’d like to raise their hand for. 

Making them part of the conversation can empower employees to define roles for themselves based on what energizes them most. They can also work with their managers to develop a career vision and assess how their current skills and interests align with what they’re doing today and what their dream career might look like in the future. 

Get the HR guide to retaining talent after a RIF

In 15Five’s latest guide, Building Organizational Resilience: The HR Leaders’ Guide to Maintaining Engagement After a RIF or Layoff, you’ll get fundamental strategies, tactics, and actionable tips for engaging and retaining high performers and building a more resilient company culture.