Layoffs are unpleasant for all involved. Not only is it painful for a supervisor to part ways with someone they have hired and trained to be a productive part of the team, but jarring as an employee to suddenly learn that you are unemployed. Although there is no scenario where a layoff is a positive experience, here are some helpful ways to ensure you approach it with empathy and humanity.
Yes, we know it is business, but it is also personal (especially to the employee being laid off).
Think about each person individually and how to make the situation as comfortable as possible. If they work remotely generally, or have a significant commute, consider a virtual meeting. While in-person has generally always been perceived as better, in today’s flexible work environment some employees might be upset about being asked to come into the office, just to be terminated and then drive back home. Think about the physical location you have the conversation (if in-person), as you do not want to put the person in a position to walk past their peers on their way out and offer to ship their personal things to avoid the public packing of the box. Cater your choices to the person being impacted.
If possible, have HR present and give the employee time with HR after the supervisor delivers the news so the employee can ask specific questions about next steps that they may not feel comfortable asking while on the phone with their now previous supervisor. If your company doesn’t have a HR department, consider contracting with someone who can support you if the layoffs impact more than a few people.
Does your benefit plan run until the end of the month after termination? If so, consider planning the separation date toward the beginning of the month so the employee has access to benefits through the rest of the month. Not every company is in the position to provide lucrative separation packages. However, providing a week or two of remote transition time in addition to the severance paid, provides a better transition for the company and also gives the impacted employee more time to job search.
Start the conversation off with letting the person know the discussion will be a difficult one, as this will provide them the opportunity to prepare for the bad news. It can feel disingenuous to have dialogue about work projects, sports, or the weather, and then get into the topic at hand. It is ok to tell an employee who did a great job and contributed a lot, that you appreciate their contributions and that the layoff is not due to their performance. This can matter when they are later reflecting on what transpired.
The communication shouldn’t end after the termination conversation.
Anticipate that it is difficult to process the news that you’ve lost your job and retain what you’ve heard about next steps. Commit to immediately providing the details over email after the discussion so that they can review them whenever they are ready.
Have a separation package prepared that contains all the important information someone might need post-separation. They will want to know about accessing their W2, rolling over their 401k, how long their benefits are active until, how to use their Health Savings Account funds, how to access your HR or payroll system for pay stubs, etc.
Layoffs impact more than those who left.
Make it safe for employees to reach out to those impacted and offer their support and care. When informing stakeholders of the changes, let them know that you wish their colleague well and encourage anyone that wants to reach out, the opportunity to reach out and offer support.
Promises of safety usually cannot be made during times of uncertainty. Often employees will ask “Is that it? Are we done?” These are tough questions in times of uncertainty and caution should be taken when answering them. The worst thing would be to say that there will be no more layoffs, and then someone else gets laid off or terminated. Even if the termination was performance related, it can impact the credibility of leadership if employees feel like the promise was broken.
Encourage leaders to have personal conversations with their team members about how they are feeling. When you are feeling uncertain, you want to hear from the person you trust most. Of course, this needs to come with guidance and support from senior leaders. Senior leaders should role model this, and then their leaders should pay it forward. Tell your most critical players that their role and contributions are important to the organization. If appropriate, explain why the decision was made to reduce or eliminate certain groups so employees can understand the rationale and decide whether that provides them comfort in their position.
Generally, position reductions result in the remaining employees picking up additional tasks. Handle this with care. Have conversations with employees about their workload and include them in the process of solutioning how to cover the tasks.
Unfortunately, “what not to do” lessons are generally learned the hard way when it comes to layoffs, however, through research and reading employee feedback, you can learn a lot from others’ mistakes. If you lead and plan your layoffs with empathy and compassion, you are more likely to avoid major pitfalls.