5 Lessons I Learned About Layoffs.
I’ve seen my fair share of layoffs. Whilst the experience is terrible for the affected employees, there usually are a few important things HR professionals and company leaders can do to approach the painful process with the care and empathy it requires of them.
Lesson 1: Pick the Least Terrible Way.
There is never a good way to let somebody go, only the least terrible one. Losing their job is one of the most stressful things that can happen to a person. Their job is not only their way to finance their lives and maybe even those of their dependents but it is also their daily routine that starts at whatever time they get up in the morning and go to work until they get back home in the evening, whenever that might be. The eight to ten hours, or sometimes even more, in between are therefore deeply connected to you as their employer. That amount of time will never be insignificant to anyone. So if you find yourself in the position of having to let people go, remember, that there is no way to do this well because you are about to flip someone’s life completely upside down. But there is a way to do this in the rightest and most empathetic way possible.
Paradoxically, empathy can be one of the first things to go out the window in a stressful situation like a redundancy. And maybe exactly because it forms the foundation of human connection, feeling the pain, fear, and sorrow of your employee will be difficult to endure. Shutting off is no option, however. Remember, you, even if you are simply a representative of the company, are in the driver's seat of the redundancy that is about to take place. The employee, on the other hand, is the recipient of the therrible news that might flip their world upside down. Stay engaged, stay connected, stay empathetic. You owe it to them, in the very least.
Lesson 2: Don’t Overspend Ahead of It.
Especially in the context of mass redundancies, lavish spendings will leave your employees feeling not cared for when they are the ones losing their jobs. And this includes not only office perks and company parties but also overhiring. Salaries are usually the highest cost factor so being frugal about adding new positions will be your safest bet in avoiding having to let go of employees again once your company hits some bumps in the road.
Even if you had no idea you would ever have to let anyone go ever in the history of your company and wish you could avoid it at all costs, people are still going to be upset with the company's decision to spend money on luxuries if that money would now come in handy to subsidize the fired colleagues’ salaries. Of course, we know it isn’t always quite as clear cut as that. But you have to understand that your employees might be getting the impression that the company was being careless with their funds at their expense.
To avoid that, be frugal about spending on lavish company events, designer office furniture, business class air travel, and the like, even if you feel that those luxuries might be exactly what employees might need to feel appreciated. But remember, appreciation is not as easily done as throwing money at people. Appreciation means listening to them, taking them seriously, caring for them on a personal level. Long-term that is what is going to keep your team close and resilient.
Lesson 3: Adapt Your Communication.
Telling the affected employees they are being laid off is terrible enough as such, most of all for the affected employees, of course. But then there are the others, employees who were not let go, employees who cherish those who will be leaving soon. And you are about to break those relationships for them forever, irrevocably. So you better get it right. No pressure huh? Yeah, it’s a lot to handle. But there are ways to communicate mass layoffs to the company that work better than others. One factor that seems to make all the difference is the proportion of people you are laying off. Let me illustrate the following scenarios.
Scenario A - Letting Go One Person
When one person is being let go, e.g. when they don’t pass their probation period, they are usually being told by their manager in a one-on-one meeting that no one else attends. This is to ensure their privacy and protect their vulnerability. Ideally then, the manager and employee agree on how they are going to share the news with the rest of the team and company. This usually takes place either by the employee writing an email to the team announcing their departure or it is being shared verbally during a team meeting. The focus here is to give the employee a say in how something that is affecting them deeply personally is being shared with their environment.
After the communication to the immediate team, usually, the news is shared with the entire company as well if the company is still small; either via email or during an AllHands for example. After the size of 100+ employees companies usually stop that practice as not all employees will know each other personally at that size. Now the information circles narrow significantly and the focus of the employees shrinks from a perspective encompassing the whole company to one that is more focused on their immediate environment. Here keeping the news to the immediate team might be sufficient.
Scenario B - Letting Go A Small Subgroup
Letting go of a small subgroup of the company will feel personal to the employees affected, very personal even. They were handpicked out of the total group of employees that could have been selected. Out of all employees, they were the ones deemed redundant and are thereby being let go.
In this scenario, try to inform the affected employees before telling the rest of the company if logistically feasible. This means that you would have termination conversations with each affected employee throughout a single day to ensure news does not spread to the rest of the company until every single employee who is made redundant was informed themselves. The employees will then usually agree to keep the news to themselves for the next 24h so that once you share it with the rest of the company everyone who is affected is already informed. Once that is complete, you can announce the news to the rest of the company without anyone attending the meeting fearing they might be affected.
Scenario C - Letting Go A Large Subgroup
When you have to let go of a large subgroup of people in your company, telling each affected employee personally before announcing the bad news to the whole company will more likely lead to the news leaking and you losing control of the narrative but also employees living in fear they might be affected once they hear the news from their colleagues rather than yourself. The best thing to do here is to flip the script and tell the whole company about the layoffs first before telling individuals they are affected by the layoffs. This might seem cruel as people will wait in fear until they have clarity about whether they are affected or not. That is why in this scenario it is crucial that you keep people waiting for a maximum of 10 minutes before they are informed if they are going to lose their jobs or not. This is usually done through an email or an invite to a talk with their manager and colleague from HR.
Lesson 4: Care for the People Left.
Whilst redundancies are without question terrible for the employees losing their jobs, it surely is not a walk in the park for those employees ‘left behind’ either. They are losing colleagues that shaped their day-to-day and might have even become friends. Create a space for people to ask questions, e.g. during Allhands meetings, and make sure to add additional meetings to make sure the questions don’t fester too long before employees have the chance to ask them. Train your managers to bring up the recent events in their 1:1s with their direct reports. They need to know how people are feeling about the decisions made and how it might affect their own future. This will form the basis, step by step, conversation by conversation, and question by question, of what your company will look and feel like in the future. Especially during mass redundancies, the culture of a company changes. How could it not? A large proportion of people who shaped your culture in the past won’t be around anymore. Working on shaping the future culture of your company will be a necessary start to healing it too.
Lesson 5: Look After Your HR Team.
HR teams are usually the ones in charge of laying off people. Whilst it can be a great learning experience, it is also a highly unpleasant and emotionally draining challenge to master. HR professionals will carry the burden of executing a decision that they might not agree with and that might negatively impact colleagues they have come to cherish over the years. They will also be the ones being responsible for ensuring that the layoffs are handled in a manner compliant with labor law regulations and internal guidelines. Also, are they the ones sitting opposite employees in termination conversations breaking the terrible news to them, answering their questions, taking care of their emotional needs, maybe even taking the brunt of their understandable anger. Working in HR can be exhausting in general, but redundancies are a whole other level of stress that HR professionals are faced with.
Consider bringing the team together during the redundancy process at least daily to check in with their emotional and mental wellbeing and ask what support they might need. And above all, give them time to catch their breath after the redundancies are done. The last thing you need as a company is an HR team that is unable to go back to their regular job of taking care of the company from the people side because they themselves have been stretched too far.
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