Why layoffs can be challenging for HR professionals

Job cuts among human resources staff are rising as companies slow hiring and cut investments in areas such as diversity and training

Shedding HR staff is trickier than a typical corporate cull. Getty
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Layoffs are a difficult part of an HR professional's job. That's especially true when they come in their own department.

Job cuts among human resource professionals are rising as companies slow down hiring and cut investments in once-hot areas like diversity and training.

Facebook parent Meta Platforms made HR and recruitment the first target of a broader layoff this week, cutting 1,500 jobs, sources said.

Adobe is cutting a “small number” of recruiters, the company said recently.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) teams, which often fall under the HR department, have been gutted at Twitter and elsewhere.

Many HR functions, such as writing job descriptions, could also soon be done by new AI tools like GPT-4.

Shedding HR workers is trickier than a typical corporate cull. For starters, they are intimately familiar with the company’s internal policies and procedures, so the process must be carried out to the letter.

Also, the person delivering the bad news is not just some unknown HR rep, but a colleague and perhaps even a friend.

And cutting the HR function too deeply could lead to problems if only a skeleton crew remains when business conditions improve.

In some cases, entire HR departments are eliminated, creating a phenomenon where the last remaining member of staff has to lay themselves off.

“It is a different scenario,” said Kelly Yeates, vice president of service operations at Insperity, which handles HR functions for 11,000 North American clients.

“You are dealing with folk who know all the inside scoop, and they’re the first to start reading the tea leaves.”

Harvard Business School professor Sandra Sucher said: “HR is closest to the sausage making.”

Job cuts so far this year are the highest since the 2009 financial crisis, according to outplacement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Layoffs took place across all 30 sectors Challenger tracks, the first time that has happened in a decade — another sign that the culling has spread far beyond technology.

HR or recruiting roles have accounted for 28 per cent of all layoffs in tech, training provider 365 Data Science found, and postings for general HR jobs have declined 23 per cent over the past year, according to Textio, which helps companies remove bias in job posts and performance reviews.

It is not hard to see how companies justify a reduced need for HR representatives.

Along with fewer new hires to recruit and show the ropes, cost-conscious organisations are also cutting budgets for workplace programmes including diversity, leadership training and well-being.

“I’ve seen more angst among DEI practitioners,” said Ms Yeates, recalling a conversation where a diversity colleague asked her for help in acquiring new skills as she feared for her job.

The law firm where few people 'go to work'

The law firm where few people 'go to work'

Companies also hired more HR employees than usual during the pandemic given the unprecedented challenges of co-ordinating remote work, rolling out vaccine mandates and grappling with the surge of resignations.

Last year, organisations employed one full-time HR employee for every 69 employees, according to workplace consultancy Gartner. That compares to a historical norm of 1 to 100.

The push to get workers back to the office could also affect HR roles. Meta told em­ploy­ees this week that it would pause all new re­mote-work ap­plications and re­quests to trans­fer to an­other of­fice through the first half of this year. HR staff would typically handle those requests.

One silver lining for HR professionals is that those who handle compliance and benefits typically stick around.

Others can sometimes move to different roles inside the organisation. Recruiters, for instance, can make very good salespeople.

And some HR workers spend years embedded in support of specific business units, like manufacturing, and learn that business well enough to get hired.

There are also plenty of industries, such as hospitality and health care, that continue to hire and will need workforce expertise.

Still, that does not salve the pain and suffering of getting sacked, which can be jarring for those in HR.

“Organisations underestimate the depth of disengagement that occurs during a layoff, and with HR, there’s two levels of disengagement,” said George Penn, managing vice president at Gartner, who has laid off HR reps and been laid off himself.

They are already managing the broader layoff, and now they have additional stress from the effect on their teammates, or, if they are the next to get thrown out, on themselves.

“This is a peer of mine delivering the message,” Mr Penn said.

Updated: March 19, 2023, 6:42 AM