Laying Off Employees is Hard

Laying off employees is hard but sometimes unavoidable.

While some leaders are scrambling to retain employees, others realize they’re overstaffed. Their business needs are changing, and that means laying off employees. 

I don’t think anyone likes laying people off.

I don’t think anyone feels good about it. (If you do, you’re not a leader. You’re a jerk. And you’re not reading this.)

Eliminating a position and delivering the message is one of the most challenging tasks managers handle. 

While laying off employees may not be easy, I feel it can be easier. 

A lot is said about companies and managers by how they handle laying off employees. 

The actions you take when you make an employee redundant speak to your character and values as well as to those of the organization. 

Here are some best practices I want you to keep in mind if you find yourself planning layoffs.

#1. Don’t go it alone. Work with your HR/People team to prepare. 

HR is an essential partner in this process. This is what they do: help leaders plan and deliver hard conversations. 

HR reps guide managers on what to say (and not) and how to say it. They cover the details of the paperwork with you and the affected employee. They can even be in the room with you when you deliver the message (it depends on you, your org, and the employee on whether this is a “good” idea). And, if you’re concerned that the conversation may take an unexpected turn, HR can guide you. 

#2. Write a script and stick to it. And then, move off it a bit. 

Brevity is key. Saying more in this situation will not help you. After you utter, “I’m laying you off,” or “Your position is being eliminated,” the employee tunes out. 

Most often, at that moment, the employee has just a few thoughts racing around their mind: “What’s the package (if there is one), and when can I end this conversation?”

Deliver the message, and then pause for questions. 

Don’t rush, yet keep your words to a minimum.

The more you talk, the more likely you’ll say something unnecessary, confusing, or even illegal. 

While I want my leaders to have a script and stick to it, I also know they are human. They want a script to guide them–and not appear robotic at the same time. 

You can veer from your talking points if you’re comfortable doing so. Don’t read what you have in front of you, word for word. Use the script to help you be yourself within a difficult conversation. 

#3. Don’t say you know how the employee feels.

Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” In truth, you don’t know. Trying to express that you understand what it’s like for them at that moment is a mistake. 

Emotions are high on both sides of the table, and if you try to make the person feel better by saying, “I know what it is like,” you may escalate the conversation.

Think about this. If someone says, “How do you know how I feel?! Are you being laid off?!” what will you say in response? 

Yep, that’s right, not much. There’s no response to that comment that helps the situation.

You can feel sad and upset about this, yet you shouldn’t express that to the employee. 

Caring and considerate leaders aren’t patronizing, especially when eliminating a role. You don’t know how anyone feels except you.

#4. Don’t deflect responsibility.

It’s natural to have the urge to deflect responsibility for the action away from you and onto HR, executives, or the company itself. 

It’s not your fault, right? 

It might not be your fault, yet it’s your responsibility. You’re the company. You’re management. You’re leadership. 

There are great rewards in becoming a people leader, and there are also significant challenges. This is one of them. You choose to take this role, so take the responsibility. Don’t blame someone else. 

Now let’s talk about how to manage well post-layoff.

After you’ve delivered the unfortunate news to one or more of your employees that they’re being laid off, what’s next?

Laying off employees is an emotionally exhausting experience for everyone involved, and it’s tempting to assume that the work is all done. 

Once the conversation is over, you need to manage the post-layoff environment.

Great managers don’t hide or ignore what just happened. They tackle this differently.  They stop to think about how to refocus their team’s energies and priorities. So, if you’ve recently made someone redundant, here are the key next steps.

#1. Share how you feel. 

You’re not the only one who’s feeling bad. Your team members could be suffering from survivor’s guilt or wondering if and when the ax will fall on them. 

While it’s inappropriate to give specifics about who got laid off and why, how the team is coping and how the company might change are subjects you need to explore. 

Disclosing your emotions in this situation shows high emotional intelligence (EQ); it’s the smart thing to do. 

You can say that you don’t like to lay people off and that making these decisions is not easy. You can express your feelings–in a general way. 

It’s OK to say you will miss someone. That’s a reasonable feeling to have and express. 

#2. Allow mourning and venting.

This seems illogical at first. Encourage people to vent and mourn a coworker who was laid off, huh? 

However, acknowledging a loss is critical in accepting change and moving on. And you want your team to vent to you, not to each other or other employees. 

You want a controlled environment for people to express frustrations.

Invite them to come to you with questions. Invite them to share their thoughts 1:1.

While it’s OK for them to vent to you, you can’t vent to them. 

If you’re stressed and need to blow off some layoff stream, do it at home (sorry, wife/husband/partner/roommate!). Call a friend and ask them to listen. Just listen. 

Vent to one of your trusted advisors–not to your direct reports. 

#3. Involve your team in prioritization.

When coworkers are laid off, employees see it as a reminder of how little control they have in the workplace. 

One day Vivian is sitting next to you; the next day, she’s gone! 

Turn this thought upside down. Involve your team in discussions about new priorities. Solicit their ideas on which projects to take off the plate and which ones to put at the top of the list. 

When coworkers are laid off, people feel a loss of control. Give them some control back as you reshape priorities. 

#4. Talk. And keep talking. 

A common fallacy after layoffs is assuming employees not affected will feel fortunate to have jobs still; therefore, turnover won’t be affected. That’s a mistake. 

Research tells us that voluntary turnover increases when reductions occur. This happened during the 2008-2009 recession, and it will happen during this one (Is it a recession? Yes or no?!).

Overcommunication is critical now: ask more questions, hold more meetings, and share more thoughts than you think you need to. In 1:1s and group meetings.

#5. Be visible. 

Instead of hiding behind the frosted windows of your office or turning your Slack to DND, you need to be as visible as possible.

You’re in your office or sitting in your cube. You’re not hiding. 

Be around so people can see you and talk to you.

Will someone thank you (one day)?

Laying someone off will never be a simple, effortless task, yet delivering it with respect for the employee will put you up there with the best of managers. Follow the guidelines above to make the process a little less painful for everyone involved.

You’ll be fine, manager. You’ll get there. 

Be direct and compassionate. Prepare yourself. 

And then, one day, I think you’ll hear this from someone you laid off: “Thanks for treating me with respect.”