Layoffs Are Still Ahead: How To Do The Dreaded Deed Kindly
Last March, the world suffered a huge shock. As the economy ground to a halt, layoffs and furloughs reverberated through the labor market. Almost a year later, the effects of the pandemic are still with us. So are the layoffs. Hundreds of thousands of workers—mostly in industries like travel/tourism, entertainment, trade shows, restaurants and cosmetics—have lost their jobs, while others have been warned that “temporary” furloughs will become permanent.
At the start of the pandemic, people believed it would be a short-lived crisis, but it continues. This level of uncertainty is really tough on the psyche. In this environment, it’s even more critical to deliver bad news with care and empathy.
Great leaders let people go in the same way they lead: with compassion, integrity, candor and the assurance that employees have what it takes to thrive in the future.
These tips will help you terminate an employee in a more compassionate way:
If you must lay somebody off, the best approach to take is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule is a guiding principle that leaders should live by every day, but never is it more important than when employees are at their most vulnerable. Imagine how you would want to be treated if you were to lose your job and move forward with that in mind. You would not want to hear the bad news via email or a mass Zoom call or be treated as if you didn’t matter to your supervisor and your company.
- Be honest and transparent. Tell them what you know as soon as you know it. If there is something you don’t yet know, tell them that too.
- Get the bad news up front. There is no way to do this painlessly, so rip off the Band-Aid.
- Spell out exactly how you arrived at the decision to lay people off. For example, you might put things in perspective by explaining how COVID is disrupting the industry. Respect them enough to share your strategy and how the company will move forward.
- Be very clear on what will happen next, what the time frame will be, what severance will look like, etc.
- Tell them what they will be able to keep. Maybe they’ll be able to keep health care coverage for a while. Some companies may let people keep their computer.
- Assure them that being laid off isn’t their fault.
- Tell them you love and care about them.
When I was at AT&T, I had to lay off my team. When my first team member came into my office for the meeting, I motioned for him to sit on the sofa instead of in one of the chairs on the opposite side of my desk. I immediately came out from behind my desk and sat right next to my team member, turning toward him. I was right there next to this employee as I laid out the details of what was going to happen.
Obviously, this physical closeness can’t happen now due to social distancing, but leaders can and must find a way to keep that spirit of human connection and caring prominent—even if you must deliver the bad news via video chat.
Schedule a one-on-one meeting when you have a lot of time, because you will want to offer plenty of space for the conversation. If you keep your message authentic, from the heart, and honest, they are most likely to receive it well.
This is a time, in particular, when people need to be reminded of the gifts they bring to the table. Be specific as you recount the many contributions the person has made to the team and the organization. Share how much you honor, respect and admire them, and remind them that other organizations will recognize and value their skills and abilities as well.
Reassure the person that these terrible times won’t last forever. A sense of hope may be the best gift you can give them right now.
After you have broken the news, roll up your sleeves and make yourself an ally to your employee as they begin envisioning their future. Discuss with them what they would really love to be doing going forward. Brainstorm about the type of jobs they would love to have. Review the kind of companies in the local region or elsewhere that might have good opportunities for them to do the things they really want to do.
To get the ball rolling, ask, “What is important to you in life, and what makes you excited about your career?” Listen closely to each response.
Assure the employee that you will do everything in your power to help them land their dream job. Call around to any contacts you have and inquire about potential job opportunities for each member of your staff who is being laid off. Give referrals freely. Help them come up with stretch assignments that will give them more experience and prepare them for potential opportunities they are interested in pursuing.
Touch base with the team member through their interview process at other companies. Make yourself available to run mock interviews and check in often to see how they are doing. They will appreciate having a mentor through this challenging process.
Is it unorthodox to keep in touch with employees after you let them go? Perhaps. But if you truly care about someone, you will want to. And who knows? You may be able to bring the person back at a later date.
When I had to lay off my team at AT&T, each employee went off to better, more exciting positions. A few started their own businesses, and I was even able to bring back others as contractors. The point? Just because you’re letting someone go doesn’t mean their life is over.
There’s no escaping the discomfort and pain caused by layoffs, but these steps keep the suffering to a minimum. You have the responsibility to send an employee off into the job market hopeful and inspired, not angry or hurt. If you’ve done your job right and acted from a place of love, they’ll leave knowing that the best part of their life is still ahead.
Deb Boelkes is the award-winning author of The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture and Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring. She has more than 25 years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership and delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America.