Best Practices for Higher Education Faculty Layoffs & Furloughs

A young Black woman leads her team in a project meeting


INTOO Staff Writer


Due to the coronavirus crisis, many universities and colleges have had to make rapid workforce changes. As classes have shifted online in response to the pandemic or been canceled altogether, many institutions of higher education have been forced to reduce their budgets, resulting in faculty layoffsLong-time employees, including adjuncts, support staff and others, have seen their positions changed or eliminated.

For HR personnel, navigating university furloughs and layoffs may initially seem overwhelming, but with these helpful tips, the learning curve doesn’t have to be that steep.


Why Follow Best Practices for Faculty Layoffs?

Universities pride themselves on their strong, curated cultures. Often decades or even centuries in the making, these cultures tend to suffer when a large number of faculty layoffs occur. Understanding how to meet the challenges of rising expenses and falling revenues while also preserving, or at least not damaging, the institution’s culture is therefore vital. 

Unsurprisingly, those staff members who are not laid off or furloughed may actually suffer low morale if they sense that their peers have not been treated with compassion. A campus staffed with disheartened faculty can backfire spectacularly on administrative plans to increase future enrollment. Additionally, if current students feel their instructors aren’t fully engaged with teaching their classes, the students may choose to transfer to a different institution when the term ends, depriving the university of even more income. 

These seemingly unrelated, individual student acts can quickly earn the university a bad public reputation. In an increasingly online world where one negative but widely shared article can trump personal recommendations, a university with a poor public reputation will have trouble winning funding, grants, and new students. In very little time at all, the level of the teaching and research candidates attracted to the institution can diminish, furthering the overall decline of the university. The vibrant culture that once defined the university can quickly become a historical footnote. 

We’ve seen this reputational decline happen to some universities who have haphazardly treated their adjunct faculty. Once unblemished institutions have had to spend significant time in the press defending how they compensate and manage their adjunct professors, who often have a large and devoted set of online followers. A clearer policy, combined with a thoughtful approach, would have likely saved everyone time and money. 

Experiences like this are why it’s essential to study up on the best practices for university furloughs and faculty layoffs. Instituting a solid, thoughtful series of practices now will ensure a stellar future, no matter what new challenges the outside world presents.

7 Best Practices for Faculty Layoffs and Furloughs

As HR professionals in higher education know, each faculty member tends to have a specialized set of skills that can’t be summarized in a one-line description. Certain faculty members may excel with students in a seminar setting; others were born to lecture to full auditoriums. Yet others are geniuses in the laboratory, or regularly publish high-profile works or garner awards that bestow even greater honor onto the university as a whole. This doesn’t even take into account the complex network of non-tenured faculty, adjuncts, and other support staff who also are vital in helping to maintain the educational ecosystem.

Whatever difficult choices a university is faced with in terms of choosing what employees to let go, the following practices will help make the process a smoother and fairer experience for everyone.

1. Plan the offboarding conversation with care

Layoffs are never easy, even in the best of times. With in-person meetings now difficult to arrange, it’s vital that the layoff itself is conducted with the maximum amount of consideration and professionalism. 

If you must hold layoff conversations virtually, choose a space or background that is visually calming and orderly; a messy or chaotic space communicates a lack of care and planning. Make sure your internet connection is stable and unlikely to freeze or experience or other technical problems. 

Scheduling is also important: give yourself and the employee plenty of time to absorb the news and ask questions. If you do run short on time, offer to make yourself available for follow-up questions. 

Faculty layoffs and furloughs should be treated with the same care and attention as the initial vetting and hiring process. Due to the specialized nature of academia, it’s likely that you will be encountering the employee again at some future event or even perhaps as a rehire. With this in mind, be sure to lay the groundwork for a positive future relationship without making any unfounded promises. 

Related: Furloughs and virtual layoffs: Best practices during the coronavirus crisis

2. Emphasize Each Employee’s Talent

Landing a job in academia is often a multi-year process that is both complex and highly competitive. Candidates frequently travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles, to interview at the campus. Each employee has therefore brought something special to their university, and during the layoff session, it’s vital for you as an HR professional to reiterate that these qualities were and are valued. 

Although the employee may intellectually realize that the layoff is not their fault, it never hurts to hear that they are talented and bring great value to the workforce. This positive reinforcement will likely help that employee come to terms with the news of the layoff more quickly than if their value is never mentioned at all. 

During the exit interview, encourage the employee to feel free to reach out to former co-workers and mentors for recommendations or other forms of help in their new job search. The employee should be made to feel that the layoff is a temporary transition in their career, not a stopping point. Knowing they have the backing of the university in their new job search will significantly bolster their morale. 

3. Communicate Honestly About the University’s Budget

Although HR professionals may feel that sharing information about the state of the endowment or the university’s projected cash flow is off-limits during a layoff, the more transparent you can be about the university’s actual budget, the better. For an employee, understanding why they are getting laid off is helpful psychologically, especially at a time when so many employees are being laid off or furloughed by colleges.

As an HR professional, don’t be afraid to discuss how the university is expecting a shortfall in enrollment due to the cancellation of in-person classes, or how unexpected refunds issued to students who were forced to leave on-campus housing substantially reduced the university’s endowment. Sometimes, creating a simple bar chart or graph that can be shared onscreen is the best way of presenting this information. 

If you’re in the unfortunate position of having to lay off dozens of employees across departments, sharing this information will help all the laid-off employees positively reconcile what has just happened to them. This kind of transparency is especially useful if the university hopes to hire back candidates after enrollment has rebounded. By being honest about the financial reality, the university can maintain good relationships with the employees it must lay off now, and hopefully can rehire in the future.

4. Offer a Competitive Severance Package

Each university should create a severance package that takes into account the number of years an employee has worked for that institution as well as any specific resources they may need once they enter the labor market again. Many severance packages detail how and when health insurance or other medical benefits may stop or change, depending on when the employee finds a new employer. In most cases, severance packages are designed to provide a cushion for that employee in terms of weeks or months of additional pay and some extended health coverage. 

When planning for faculty layoffs, it is vital that you understand these benefits and be prepared to answer any questions the employee may have about them. Being calm, informed, and compassionate will not only enable the employee to find a new position more rapidly, but also help engender a positive feeling toward the university. Being able to articulate the package’s specific features during a layoff is crucial to creating an overall positive experience for the employee. Additionally, a comprehensive and competitive severance package not only aids the employee, but serves as a kind of insurance policy for the university against bad publicity or word of mouth. 

5. Incorporate Flexibility in Layoff and Furlough Plans

Deciding to lay off several adjuncts while preserving a tenure-track professor may actually cost the university more money in terms of having to find replacement instructors to cover the total number of classes each adjunct is currently teaching. Consider the following situation: each adjunct is currently teaching three large introductory courses while a tenure-track professor is teaching two advanced seminars. Laying off two adjuncts will initially save more money than laying off the tenure-track professor, but someone will be needed to teach the now unstaffed six introductory courses. 

Because of these and other furlough dilemmas, many universities are experimenting with more flexibility in their cost-cutting measures. Reducing the pay of the tenure-track professor by 15%, for example, while retaining the adjuncts may actually be more beneficial financially in the long term. 

Staff members who are earning less per year but doing more work will necessarily be affected by cuts far more deeply than those whose annual salaries are substantially larger. Asking the well-compensated to sacrifice a percentage of their income while keeping their position may ultimately help the university rein in their budget while retaining most of their current staff. This kind of flexibility and strategic thinking can also sustain the culture of the institution, leading to stronger morale and a sense of employee loyalty. 

6. Listen to Suggestions

We are living in unprecedented times. Thanks to technology, the nature of pedagogy itself is undergoing extensive changes. As you conduct faculty layoffs or furloughs, don’t be afraid to listen to their suggestions about how their particular area of expertise may be changed or adapted to fit into a world in which online instruction is increasingly a reality. 

Many institutions of higher learning are reconceiving of how to make themselves more accessible and relevant to students as the world itself transforms. The position of “professor,” “adjunct” or “administrator” may mean something very different five years from now than it did five years ago. These changes can be invigorating, both in terms of delivering an excellent education and in reshaping how budgets are conceived. Faculty and staff may have helpful ideas about how their role can change to fit this new reality. Universities are centers of thought, discourse, and creativity: being open to harnessing some of that ingenuity may ultimately prevent more layoffs while also saving more money.

7. Offer outplacement benefits

While many severance packages include outplacement services, your employees may not immediately be familiar with what, exactly, outplacement is. In addition to helping the employee revamp their CV or resume, these services also help guide the employee adapt to the current job market by updating their online profiles and encouraging them to articulate their particular skills or personal brand. These services are especially essential for faculty or staff who have not been on the job market for five or more years. 

While personal relationships are already very important in academic circles, outplacement services can help each employee to expand their network as well as give them access to customized online skills training software. In addition, as higher education transforms, some of these employees may need to consider work outside of academia. Outplacement career coaching can help guide these employees as they seek out new roles in new industries.

By walking your employee through what they can expect from their outplacement provider during the layoff, you will give them a head start on finding a new position. They will also feel that the university cares about their future well-being, which again is a vital step towards maintaining an excellent reputation. 

Related: The Essential Guide to Outplacement

Following these seven best practices can transform what can be a traumatic experience into a transformative one for affected employees. If your institution is considering workforce changes, Intoo’s outplacement solution can help. With expert career coaches that specialize in higher education job transitions, our outplacement program equips employees in transition with one-on-one, targeted support to help them land jobs 2.5 times faster than the national average time it takes workers to find new positions. Learn more about how we can help your former faculty and staff quickly rebound into satisfying new roles.

INTOO Staff Writer

INTOO staff writers come from diverse backgrounds and have extensive experience writing about topics that matter to the HR and business communities, including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more.

Learn how to effectively build and transition your workforce.

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