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How to Lay Off Employees with Compassion and Class (and Less Stress)

Sep 28, 2020

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Very few managers think about how to lay off employees until it suddenly becomes necessary. But by then it's often too late—not for laying off employees but for handling it effectively; i.e., with professionalism, compassion and class.

But it can be done. To make this task easier, especially in light of COVID-19, here is a checklist of Dos and Don'ts to help you navigate the difficult waters of laying off employees. 

Bonus: You'll also find practical tips for surviving a layoff.

Laying Off Employees: 11 Do's and Don'ts

For the sake of clarity, let's cover what not to do when laying off employees, followed by what to do instead.

  1. Don't go into it unprepared. Do think through what you'll need and what the employee(s) will need. Examples include a quiet, private setting where you wont' be interrupted, a game plan for how you're going to structure the conversation, and answers to questions employees are most likely to ask. 

  2. Don't torture the other person by working your way up to the news. Instead, get it out in the first sentence or two. Example: "I need to share the unfortunate news that as of today, you're being laid off." This holds true whether you're conducting the layoff via email (hopefully not), a phone conversation, Zoom or face-to-face. Most people would prefer that you get to the point first, then explain or go into more detail afterward.

  3. Don't waffle and don't be any heavier-handed than necessary. Sometimes in an effort to overcome their own fears or anxieties, managers lose sight of how they're coming across to the person being let go. Do be fair but firm. 

  4. Don't make it harder than necessary. Do clarify this is a layoff, not a firing. (Getting fired is due to employee performance. Layoffs are due to company performance, or other changes within the company itself.)  

  5. Don't forget you're dealing with another human being. Is there anyone who hasn't been deeply affected by COVID-19? You may not be able to avoid layoffs. But you can convey the news with as much compassion and grace as possible. However you convey it will be remembered for years by the person receiving the news—and probably shared with countless others.  

  6. Don't give the news (or try not to give it) on a Friday. Reason: Your people may want to start exploring other job possibilities. Tough to do that on a Saturday or Sunday. Likewise, a weekend can make it all too easy to ruminate, instead of taking constructive action. Instead, wherever possible, make decisions, including timing, in the best interest of those being laid off. Though there's no good time to share this news, sharing it earlier in the week has its advantages.

  7. Don't say things that aren't true or helpful. Do find out what you're allowed to say (or not allowed). For example, some HR managers are instructed not to say a single word of sympathy. Sad but true. But it can be just as disheartening to share sentiments that aren't true or helpful. Example: "I didn't sleep a wink last night." Even if it's true, keep the focus on helping the employee feel better. On the other hand, when you're laying people off due to something beyond their control, tell them. Affirm each person's best qualities. 

  8. Don't make promises you can't keep. It's wonderful when a boss tells the newly laid-off employee, "I will write you a strong letter of recommendation within 72 hours." But do make sure anything you're promising is doable and sustainable--especially if you're laying off multiple employees.

  9. Don't expect everyone you lay off to take it well. Do let them have their reaction. Everybody needs space to grieve if necessary. And most people you lay off are dealing with something else besides the layoff. Simply make allowances for this.

  10. Don't rush a person off the call, once you do share the news. Instead, give them time to process the information and ask questions. Let them feel listened to.

  11. Don't ignore your own needs. Laying off employees can be hard, messy and draining. Do instead: Just as you took time to plan how you would structure the layoff conversations, think ahead to how you will structure your own personal energy renewal plan. 

7 Tips for Surviving a Layoff (You Got This)

  1. Remind yourself you're not alone—and that the layoff wasn't personal. While being laid off is certainly no picnic, hold your head high and keep self-doubt at bay.

  2. Take charge of your finances. The sooner you do, the greater your options. As a starting point, check out the resources on Dealing With Debt in a Time of Crisis. Resolve, the company behind it, comes highly recommended by my former colleague Gerri Detweiler, a nationally known credit expert.

  3. Look for the opportunity(ies). Even in the worst of times, the opportunities are there. Could it be you're called to shift gears in other ways beyond work? In the words of Steve Harvey, "Behind every moment of adversity in your life ... there is a lesson and there is a blessing." If you know much about his story, you know he's come through all kinds of adversity, including homelessness and job loss.

  4. Go rack up some small wins. Whether it's making phone calls to those who can help you, rewriting your resume, or just reorganizing your workspace, small successes can help build momentum and spirits.

  5. Do something for someone else. This is the ultimate win. Why? Because it helps you forget your own troubles while giving you the privilege of serving someone else. As an example, in January I joined Cake4Kids, which lets volunteers like me bake birthday treats for kids who otherwise would receive none. It's impossible not to feel better about the world when you're making life better for someone else.

  6. Reach out, reach out, reach out. Need places to start? Check out Best Websites for 2020 Job Search

  7. Stay determined and optimistic. Yes, a layoff can bring a slew of unwanted emotions. Take the time you need to process them. But as we touched on in the recent post on employee burnout, those who have the best track record fro success after a setback are those who embrace the 3 C's of challenge, commitment and control. 

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