How To Conduct Layoffs With Dignity
Anyone who says layoffs aren’t personal when most of us spend the majority of our lives at work so we can provide for our families is mistaken. To the employee, layoffs are personal because it’s more than just business. That’s why when we think of layoff best practices, the process should be transparent and empathetic. Unfortunately, not all companies conduct layoffs in a manner that would be described as respectful. For example, organizations like GoogleGOOG recently relied on email to announce layoffs to unsuspecting workers. One employee even thought the early morning message was from a scammer trying to capitalize on the current wave of job cuts. As it turns out, the 20-year company veteran was let go via a generic email—not the most personalized method.
Despite some poorly managed layoffs, others have been handled with dignity and respect. Take Stripe, for example. When CEO Patrick Collision emailed employees, he shared the broader context and admitted that leadership made mistakes leading to the layoffs. He even went so far as to create a Stripe “alumni” group to support those affected and help them move on to other companies.
While layoffs are never a positive experience, there are ways to soften the blow. Here are some tactics that display empathy and compassion for employees at a time when they are most vulnerable.
Develop a communications plan
A well-thought-out communications plan is at the heart of an empathetic layoff. According to Harvard Business Review, the essential elements are:
Rationale: a clear and honest explanation as to why the layoff is taking place
Key messages: what actions are being taken, and how will the company be positioned for the future
Audiences: consistent messaging to other parties, including investors, media and business partners
The communications plan should be developed well in advance with buy-in from all C-level executives. Then, on announcement day, the CEO should be the key spokesperson.
Prepare your management team
Once you have the strategy, prepare the team delivering the news. Managers should receive training on dealing with employees’ questions, pushback and emotional responses. It is also advisable to develop scripts that clearly explain why the layoff is taking place, severance package details, and other support that will be provided. Arming managers with essential tools and resources will make them feel better prepared to handle these difficult conversations.
Tell them in person
A one-on-one conversation should take place between the employee and their direct manager. This meeting may follow an initial email notification as long as a live discussion happens within 24 hours. In that meeting, explain to the employee the business reasons for the layoff and what comes next. Sometimes it’s difficult for people to absorb information about severance packages when the news comes as a surprise. In that case, move through the exit meeting quickly and let the employee know they can contact you in a few days once they have reviewed the information. Overall, these private sessions give affected employees a sense of dignity and allow them to react, process the news and ask questions.
It’s important for CEOs to accept responsibility for the decision to lay off workers. For example, with Meta’s recent layoffs, Mark Zuckerberg stated, “I want to take accountability for these decisions and for how we got here.” They should also admit their mistakes and how they plan on correcting them moving forward. In Collision’s email to Stripe employees, he highlighted how the leadership team overestimated the internet economy’s near-term growth and grew operating costs too quickly. Then he went on to say that they would correct those mistakes.
Consider remaining staff
A layoff can be just as difficult on remaining employees as on those who are let go. It’s called layoff survivor guilt—a term that refers to experiencing remorse that one had survived a layoff when your colleagues didn’t. These workers might encounter an array of emotions, including guilt, sadness, relief and anger. They may also feel anxious because they wonder whether their jobs will be next on the chopping block. As a result, the productivity of remaining employees tends to decline following a layoff. According to a study by Leadership IQ, 74% of employees who kept their job say their own productivity has declined since the layoff. To offset these concerns, be honest about the company’s future and plans for future layoffs. It’s also a good idea to set up a Q&A session to go over the reason for the layoffs, which employees were impacted and what the next few days will look like.
Ultimately, it’s not what happens but how you handle it. Competent leaders understand that every former employee is a potential future customer, client or partner. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make them feel like human beings, and in return, you’ll be rewarded with a company reputation that will stand the test of time.