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How to Move Forward After a Reduction in Force (RIF)

By OpenComp


Over the last few months, businesses have shifted from a growth-at-all-costs mentality to seeking to conserve cash at all costs, and many organizations have had a reduction in force. Today we speak with seasoned fast-growth executive and CPO at Sendoso Alexis Kavazanjian about how to move through and forward after a RIF – and just as importantly, what we can learn this time around, so it doesn’t happen again.



CAITLIN ALLEN: So if you've read the headlines recently, you've probably seen something about this topic. Over the last few months, businesses have shifted from a growth at all costs mentality to seeking to conserve cash at all costs. And for many organizations that's resulted in a reduction of force. So today, we speak with seasoned fast growth executive and current Chief People Officer at Sendoso, Alexis Kavazanjian, about how to move through and forward after a RIF. And it just importantly, what we can all learn this time around so that hopefully they can happen, not at all or less in the future. Alexis, thank you so much for being here.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Thanks for having me.

NANCY CONNERY: Alexis, thanks for joining us. This is a particularly relevant topic today. And I'm just gonna kind of jump right in. Can you share a little bit about your background in the high growth landscape with our listeners?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, sure. Um, so thinking about my career over the last, you know, 15 years, I think, I've been pretty fortunate to kind of have fell into this landscape. You know, my first job out of college, I joined a startup as employee number four. And I think I've kind of inadvertently created a niche for myself and have found success in this area. So have been at progressively larger and larger, you know, venture backed high growth startups, primarily in the tech space. And even more specifically in the software space as of late.

NANCY CONNERY: Great, thank you.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Really impressive background with a track record, just growing companies from early stages to organizations that are fairly large, so excited to dive into some of those anecdotes together. But before we get there, we like to ask our guests a personal question, digging into something that most of your coworkers don't know about you.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: So this is super nerdy. And it's so nerdy that I would even go so far as to say that my friends probably don't know this about me as well. But I have a pretty extensive stamp collection. It's something that I fell into when I was really young, a relative was into it. And I got a portion of their stamps and kind of started building and growing on it. And so I still have it today, I don't maintain it in any form or fashion. But what's so funny is, for the longest time, I had a post marked $2 bill. And I thought this thing was going to make me a millionaire come to find out, it's still worth $2. So here we are. My extensive stamp collection that's probably doesn't have a lot of value, but has sentimental value. So

NANCY CONNERY: I think it might have more value than you think actually more maybe than the $2 bill. But you know, today as we talk about riffs, reductions in force, which is really front and center, to in today's day and age, you know, can you tell us a little bit about some of the riffs that you personally have navigated as a leader in the people space?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, you know, I think, unfortunately, I've probably had more than, you know, my fair share, I joined the workforce just before the 2008 recession. And over the last, you know, 15 plus years, I think, as we've seen the economy kind of ebb and flow, ebb and flow. You know, companies have had to navigate this. So unfortunately, you know, looking back all the way to the 2008 recession, going through the pandemic a couple years ago, and navigating what we're going through now, you know, I have a handful of them under my belt. And I will say, this is not what, you know, people leaders aspire to do or wake up to do in the morning. But it comes with the territory, I think. So.

NANCY CONNERY: It's one of the things that I found as a people leader myself, that never gets easier.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: No, certainly certainly does not no matter how many times you do it, it's it's just as difficult.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Yeah, I'll plus one to both of those comments. And on that note of difficulty, maybe we can talk a little bit about how we can do the best with the sub optimal situation when it does arise. And you know, whether that's something that you take us through a couple of anecdotes or more talk on the level of principles, but in the riffs. You've been a part of Alexis, how do you and the rest of company leadership approach deciding who to lay off?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah. So I think that's a really important question. And I think when you're getting to the point of asking yourself who we need to lay off, you've probably worked through but maybe you need a couple, take a couple steps back and say Why are we finding ourselves in this situation in the first place? What is the business rationale that led us to get to where we are? Did we over invest in an area? Are we not meeting our business goals? Did we, you know, change our plans, and we don't need certain functions anymore. So I think that's a really important first step in terms of figuring that out. Because once that's decided, then the next part is also needs to be really well thought through. And I think the answer to your question is, it depends, right? It depends on how you decide to go about that. But what's really important is to look at it in as objective method as possible, right? When you're going through this process, you're dealing with humans, it's very difficult. And so you want to make sure you're treating people fairly. So you can think about some things like, maybe it's lastin. First out, maybe it's a matter of cost, if you're driving towards reducing cost. Maybe it's performance if you happen to have clear performance measures in place. So that's always been kind of my philosophy. And my approach is, if you approach the process in an objective, fair manner, and you treat people with respect, while you're going through this, that's really going to set the stage for who you are, as an organization, what your leadership values are, and how ultimately, you're going to stand up as a company after all this.

NANCY CONNERY: Very true. And I think that, you know, what we've seen, particularly recently with what's been going on, some companies have decided to perhaps over leverage on reducing folks, and then they realize that perhaps, wow, I didn't think that through, and I got rid of that entire function, and then I need to outsource this. And that's actually going to cost me more than maybe my whole team cost when they were employees, you know, not to mention the hidden costs that come along with all of this, you know, so what words of wisdom can you offer, as you know, a people expert here?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, I think when going through this exercise, oftentimes, it becomes an exercise in urgency and being swift with the process. But this is something where taking your time and being really thoughtful about not only the short term implications, but what the long term implications to the business are, are going to be really critical. And I've actually been in a couple of situations where, you know, you leaders, managers tend to over leverage the situation, and be opportunistic, use this as an opportunity. But what I always try and push back on and challenge a little bit is, if you find yourself in a situation as a business, where you're saying, you know, we're going through this reduction in force at large, let's use this as an opportunity to include other people that we might not have otherwise thought of, you probably don't have good performance management standards to begin with. And so that's what I would recommend is, how do you go back to the drawing board, either, you know, during or after this process, and make sure that moving forward, you have a process where you're regularly evaluating the talent that you have in your organization, and really ensuring that you have the right people at the right stage of the company on a regular basis. Right. So what roles are critical to the success? What roles are critical to the success of the business for the next 12 to 24 months? And do we have the right people in those roles? I think that's the more important question that needs to be asked. And oftentimes, because it's not asked companies find themselves in in that situation.

CAITLIN ALLEN: The other thing that's really standing out to me related to that is, within the current climate that we have, retention is also a big focus, which generally involves things like career pathing, and, you know, promoting internally so to speak. And I think one of the areas I've seen it be easy for teams and companies to overlook is when someone moves into a high performer moves into a new level, or role. And the training is often not there to help that high performer and an individual contributor, become a high performing manager. And if particularly related to real time, candidate feedback, maybe I can just speak for myself when I was a first time manager, it was really uncomfortable for me to learn how to give that feedback. And, you know, I often had to script it and like look at it instead of the person because I'm that uncomfortable. But I think I think that's often a lot of what you're speaking to it can be so easily solved if we just didn't roleplay with our managers and things along those lines to kind of de risk it make it a little bit more familiar things along those lines.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, 100%. I, I very much agree with that. And I think that is often overlooked, but your managers and your leaders are going to be critical to the success of your organization moving forward. And that's one of those things where you need to think about how much upfront investment do we need to make in order For the success and longevity of this company versus trying to move quickly and, you know, be speedy, it's the it's the Venn diagram of its like cost and speed and what the overlay is there. And you really have to think about those Levers as a business.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Yeah, and we can come back to this point later, when we kind of get into how do you move forward after a riff, but I would love to talk about how do you allocate learning, l&d budget, right to that kind of training, when in a season like now, and if you're making or if you're probably thinking a lot about budgeting, so there's some tension there, that's natural. But staying on on task, before I get us off on too many more rabbit trails? When when you've determined which groups are going to be affected by ref, Alexis, what is your process for preparing your people leaders, for for, for communicating those changes?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: I think communication is probably the most important part of this process, and how you communicate. So helping your employees understand, you know, why are we in the situation that we're in, is going to be really critical to figuring out how you move forward as a business, right? And so determining your communication plan is, is equally if not the most important thing that you could do? Who do we need to notify? When do we need to notify these people? And how are we going to need to notify these different groups, there's going to be a different a few different groups and cohorts that are going to be impacted differently. And so typically, the way that I like to think of it is to define a cascading communication plan, where you're going to start with your leadership team, then you're going to move on to you know, your people, managers or managers with impacted folks in their group, then you're going to think about your impacted group. And then ultimately, you have your remaining employees. And again, each level and each group of employees that you talk with is going to be a little bit different. But you want to make sure that your message is really clear and really consistent. And I think, you know, my philosophy with communication is early and often, you know, you need to give people time and space to process, you need to give people time to ask questions, you need to give people time to understand what's happening. And specifically with the leadership team, I mean, these are going to be the people that are critical to the success of your business moving forward. And so if you want your leaders to be involved in the process, you need to have established trust with them. You need to bring them, you know, over the fence early, and they really need to understand why this is happening. Why is this happening as a business who's going to be impacted? And what was our selection criteria for this, if your leaders don't understand that, they're not going to be able to lead, you know, as such, right. And so they have to have a really good solid understanding of how this impacts the business and how they're being asked to push for. I think beyond that, you know, then you have your impacted group, right. And I think what's important with the folks that are going to be impacted in this process is, you have to have really clear communication, and you have to understand that not everybody absorbs information the same. And when you're being delivered a difficult message, sometimes you tend to kind of you know, blank out and you're not really hearing the nuances in the words. And so it's important to make sure that you're following up not only, you know, via verbal message, but with written communication, and you're quick, and you're providing resources to folks, because you've just sort of dropped this bomb on people, and they're going to be, you know, waiting. And then ultimately, I think the, the really important group that you're gonna have to communicate with as your remaining employees, I think how you pull the team together afterwards is really, really important. This is the time where authentic leadership needs to shine, you need to show up, you need to own the mistakes that you've made as a company, you need to help people understand why we got here, and what we're doing to avoid this moving forward. And so people need to understand what success looks like, and how you as a company and you as a leadership team, really, you know, plan to achieve that. And how the, you know, you plan to have the business bounce back pretty quickly.

NANCY CONNERY: Authentic Leadership, I think I'm gonna take that term from you, because that really resonates I really, from a value standpoint, stand behind that. So I will give you credit for that. But I now have a new new term to use.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: I made it up but it's something that's you know, kind of a value. That's, that's true to me personally, as well. So

NANCY CONNERY: yeah, it resonates, it resonates very well with me. And you know, the importance of communication as well really at all levels. And we find ourselves in a very interesting place in the work world now because a lot of the work world is hybrid or remote. There's no kind of standard For, you know, if this happens to a company and you need to do a reduction, you can kind of pull everybody together, like you were talking about and everybody's in person, we find that we have people all over the place with different, you know, working situations, you know, and what kind of, you know, approach advice can you offer for this new kind of era that we're in in the workplace?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, one of the things that I will say about this is, I think the remote environment that we're in today made it way too easy for companies to do this very poorly. We've all kind of read and heard the headlines and the horror stories of, you know, these sort of mass calls with the OMINOUS VOICE and no video on that created, you know, mass confusion and mass anger. Yeah. So I think it's unfortunate that, you know, we experienced that I'm hoping that we've all learned from that and can move on. Obviously, when going through this situation, you know, face to face is going to be the most personal, but given how we work is not always an option. And so I think what I always say is, no matter what the format is, you have to give people the respect that they deserve in this situation, you have to help these people understand, you know, why we're in the situation that we're in, and ultimately, what is available to them as a resource moving forward. I think how you exit people is just as important as how you hire an onboard people. This is a huge life changing moment. And so a little support, or, you know, if you can have a lot of support in this regard goes a long way. Yeah,

CAITLIN ALLEN: just just out of curiosity. For both of you. This was a topic over the dinner conversation a couple a couple of nights ago in our household because my husband is a CFO. And his perspective is you can't really avoid these kind of moments, right? Like you make business plans for certain financial climate. And then they change. And he was kind of bemoaning some CEOs who have said, like, this is my fault. And his perspective is, it's not really necessarily something that they can control for. By the same token, there are things like headcount planning that really do you know, give visibility into different scenarios? Is this a situation we can even avoid it? Because I think what I'm double clicking into Alexis, as you keep saying, understand why we got here, which I think is a really good point. And so I wanting to unpack how to understand why we got here.

NANCY CONNERY: Yeah, I'll go first for a second, because, you know, I think that what we've seen over the last few years, nobody really had or has a playbook for. We got hit with a global pandemic, you know, beyond proportions that that affected, you know, the world that then turned into you kind of a hiring frenzy, it certainly in certain segments, was there the right quality control, you know, if you think about you hire how many companies hired people over zoom, never having met them before, and never truly understanding how they could work. And it's not to their fault, necessarily, maybe they've never worked in that environment before. And then the indicators just in terms of what's gone on, and kind of the broader world is kind of this, you know, all this craziness coming together. So who could predict for that, but I do think that it is a good lesson and a good takeaway in terms of thinking about more measured growth, even if you're seeing such success in your business. Maybe you don't react so quickly to hire so many people, you slowly in a very measured way go about it. But I don't know that there's any, you know, perfect answer for that. Alexis would love to hear what your thoughts are?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Well, I definitely, definitely don't have the perfect answer. But I think I echo a lot of what you were saying, which is we haven't seen this environment before. And I think a lot of the underlying ecosystem, and the availability and incentives that were put in place are a lot of what fueled this, right. So historically, VC money was, you know, easy to come by, and companies were intended to grow at all costs. And, you know, we're doing things that we have come to realize aren't the right things for businesses to do in this current economic environment. And so there's been this shift from maybe perceived value to actual value. And I think a lot about what you were saying Nancy is putting controls in place, and being able to say, Okay, if you can get to, you know, X show us you can achieve x, and we will then give you y versus spend X to achieve y, you know, and I think there was a lot of kind of upside down, you know, models and metrics and again, sort of incentives in place that kind of led us to get where we are today. And I think a lot of companies have quickly realized that that's not going to be where the value is placed on the future and And, you know, there's been a huge shift in focus here. I've already spoken to you and you know, a lot of other companies that are focusing on, you know, the efficient, sustained growth and not this notion of, you know, growth at all costs. Hmm,

CAITLIN ALLEN: really well said, rounding out the kind of how do you handle a riff part of the conversation before we move on to how do you move forward? How much do you worry about media coverage in a season like this as a chief people officer?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: I think it's one of those things that is probably in the back of all of our minds. And one of the things that can probably keep us up at night, I will say, I think I worry about it less knowing that we're making sure we're handling this process in a fair, empathetic, professional and respectful manner. If you do all of those things, well, I think media, you want to get the media coverage, you want to be the, you know, the Darling, the sort of success story that you know, the company that did it well, and everyone kind of models after. So I think as long as you're handling things, you know, in that way, the media coverage should be not not maybe talk with mine.

NANCY CONNERY: And after the RIF has happened in in, you had this internal communication. And you kind of think about the remaining employees, which notably you you said, and I agree with our you know, very important ones to make sure that they understand and have the information they need. And their questions are answered, and they can refocus, you know, what advice do you have in terms of refocusing and rebooting and being able to just move forward from from here, especially when we have a lot of folks in the workplace, you have never, you know, experienced a RIF, let alone any kind of economic turmoil.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: And I think that's just it as a business at some point, you do have to move forward. But I think, ultimately, first and foremost, how you handle the riff is really going to set the stage for your remaining employees, they're going to see that they're going to understand how you acted as a business and as a company. And so I think that has everlasting effects. Once you focus your attention inward, I think you need to understand that we're all human. And we all need time to you know, process and have that space. But again, as a business, you know, we need to, we need to move forward. And so the remaining employees are going to, they're going to need a lot, I think what's going to be important is how you communicate. And you're going to really have to think about communicating in different formats, right. So you can think about holding all hands to send a large message to the entire company, holding open office hours for people to come and talk to you, you know, one on one and in small group formats, empowering your leaders to have open sessions with their teams, and ask that those leaders bring the feedback back to the leadership team is really important in creating that strong employee feedback loop, so that way, your employees see that they have a voice, they're giving feedback, you hear them, and you're transparent on how you're actioning or maybe can't action, and responding to the feedback that they're providing you so that they can see they're still part of this equation, they're still part of the model, they still have a voice and all this. And then ultimately, again, I think it's about acknowledging, when you're ready to move on, you have to set the team up for success by having a really clear path forward. People need to understand what that looks like, what does success look like as a business? And what are our plans to achieve it? And the more clear and consistent you get with that message, the easier it's going to be to get people back on the bus and get everyone focused on kind of the task at hand and moving forward.

CAITLIN ALLEN: It makes sense. And I love really like the very, like the message about the humans are going to lead need a good, good amount from us. As as we move forward. I think that's a really, really important point taking that human first approach. And we've spoken a bit about how do you learn from past mistakes? How do you avoid future riffs? Maybe midway, just asking that question again. You know, if there's anything else you want to talk about, particularly through the the point on how do you balance things like learning and development in a time where budgets are shorter?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: I think HR leaders have become very experienced at dealing with budget cuts and getting getting scrappy, and doing more with less. I think what's important is, as a company, when you're going through this process, you've identified a reason that's having you go through this reorg or reduction, right, whether it's cost or changing strategy, or whatever it may be. And you need to have part of what I said earlier, which is having a really clear path forward of what success looks like and how we're going to achieved that needs to encompass and incorporate some of the smaller kind of tactical things that leaders need to be equipped with in order to do their jobs. Well. So you know, you talk about learning and development, if career development and growing our employees and giving them opportunities to, you know, do their best work is important to us as an organization, at some point, we have to invest in it right. And so that needs to be a conversation that shouldn't be had after this, it should be held during the process. So that, you know, once you're done with this, and you need to move forward, what exactly that looks like, what the action plan is, what's on the roadmap, and what the priorities are for, you know, the company at large, and then each of the different functions underneath that.

NANCY CONNERY: Yeah, completely agree with you very well said. And now, you know, kind of switching gears a little bit, and we always like to have a little bit of a personal element to to our podcast, so that our, our listeners can learn a little bit more. And so in that vein, you know, you give back a lot. And that's via, you know, your involvement with first round HR experts, Council and other organizations as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what has really motivated you over the course of, of your career at it to make this so important?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, so I think, you know, when looking back over my career, most of my career has, or, or if not, all of my career has been in these, you know, fast paced, hyper growth, scrappy growing companies. And in these types of environments, if you've been in them, you know, this very well, but there's a lot of learning that happens on the fly, I think there's an expression like putting the wheels on the bus as it's driving, you know, down the road. And I like to add in, you know, and there's a kid with scissors running up and down the aisle, right. And so I think in order to be successful in my career, I had to get really good at using my resources. And I found that, you know, one of the best resources outside of Google, were operators, so people that had been in my shoes before, or had experienced, you know, what we were trying to do, and could really shed some light on, on how to approach a situation, how to think about things, things to avoid what to see around the corner. And those folks were really instrumental in terms of, you know, my career growth and my success, and helping answer specific questions that I just couldn't find the answers to. And so given that, I've been through that, and kind of seen this movie a couple times, at varying stages and sizes, I become really motivated to give that back. Because if I can avoid, you know, help someone avoid a mistake, or give a different perspective on something that's really important to me in terms of where I am in my career, and my philosophy on leadership. And I think as of late, we're starting to have more communities around, you know, this, this specific area, but that hasn't always existed. And so it's something that's really been important for me to be a part of, and to really, you know, help build, I'm a huge fan of, of knowledge share, and kind of this notion of, you know, a rising tide lifts, lifts all boats, I think we're all in this together as a community. And if I can, you know, lend a nugget of, of knowledge or information, you know, I'd be more than happy to, and I actually enjoy that. So

CAITLIN ALLEN: yeah, it really important to give back. One of the things I enjoyed about our prep call was you have what I would say is a fairly interesting perspective on being a woman in tech. What are what are your thoughts on everything related to the ranging from the importance of dei to how to build a company that actually acts on its values? And avoid throwing around buzzwords?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, really important question. And something I think that's, you know, obviously very, very personal to me, you know, as a woman in the tech space for the last 15 plus years, there's certainly been many times where, you know, I'm, I'm one of, I'm the only or one of very few in a room. And I think for me, I've been really fortunate to have sought out and actually found environments where I'm largely able to, you know, show up and be treated for what I have to offer and what I bring to the table, not my my gender, my personal background. And so my personal philosophy has kind of morphed into, how do I lead with with what I have to offer? And how do I really start to think about doing more of that on a on a larger scale? Right. So when when you hear these stories of people that have found themselves in difficult situations, the way that I reflect on them is to really think about why is this an issue in the space that we work in? And how can we continue to create these environments and these experiences where this continues to change over time? I'm a firm believer that we need to collectively work on this as as individuals as community members as well. organizations at large. And I think we all have the responsibility to create this culture to that makes having this type of environment, the standard, right. And so while that sounds easy, and you know, in theory, I think in practices becomes very hard. And I think specifically around Dei, in general, you know, I think as a fleet, ei can, you know, like many other things become easy for companies to jump on the bandwagon, and toss around buzzwords. And I think at the end of the day, words, are just words, right? Humans have come to not trust words, they trust actions. And so I think when I think about the companies that are going to win and be successful in the future, and thrive in this space, it's going to be the companies that take not only just action, but the best actions, right, we really have to understand how do we create this environment where we're setting people up to achieve their best potential? And, and that can mean a lot of things. And we can probably have a whole separate chat on just that topic. But that's the direction that we largely need to move in. And how do we figure out how to learn from each other so that we can all you know, win and celebrate in that

NANCY CONNERY: you have offered some some incredible words of wisdom here. And as we round our conversation out, you know, what's a commonly held belief in people HR world, you know, that you strongly actually disagree with?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: I think there's a lot or a few. But if I had to pick just one, I think that culture is hrs job. And the way that I like to think about culture is I think culture is everyone's job. I think culture is everyone's responsibility. I think people and HR and even culture teams exist to help create the mechanisms for great culture. But I don't think that it's all it falls solely on the HR teams plate. I like to kind of think of it as like, if culture is the heartbeat, then the people teams are there to measure and feel the pulse of the organization.

CAITLIN ALLEN: So on the same page for that, I feel like culture trickles top down. What of all the things that you've said today, Alexis, would you say is the most important thing that our audience can act, remember and act on?

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: And there's two things I think, one, I think as leaders, you oftentimes have to take a second and pull back. And really understand that this work is difficult for everyone involved. In particular, your HR leaders are being tasked with executing on this. So make sure you check in with your people, make sure you check in with your team, make sure you're giving them the support that they need in order to be successful. And I think the second thing is, you know, in business and in life, really Your reputation precedes you. And so the way that you exit people matters. And it's really important to remember that you're dealing with people, not stats, not numbers, and any large, you know, restructure reorganization should always be approached with authenticity, transparency, and most importantly, I think empathy.

CAITLIN ALLEN: Is that authentic leadership point again, Nancy?

NANCY CONNERY: With me, I hope is resonating with all of our listeners.

CAITLIN ALLEN: I'm sure it has. This has been really great. Thank you for the courage to that it takes to dive into just such a charged topic. So we really appreciate you being here with us.

ALEXIS KAVAZANJIAN: Yeah, I appreciate the support. And thank you for having me.

NANCY CONNERY: Thanks, Alexa.

CAITLIN ALLEN: And to our listeners. Thank you for being here too. Don't forget to give us a fiver if you're feeling generous a six star rating if that's possible, and you can email if you have ideas for topics or guests

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