Layoffs are a painful process for any workplace, but for many reasons employers sometimes have to let some people go. In the technology sector and beyond, layoffs are in the news right now. Sadly, some of the news we see features stories of insensitivity, callousness, and other tragic missteps in the course of a layoff. We all want to do right by each other, especially when times are hard. And a company's reputation and values are on the line when layoffs happen. Let's explore some of the best advice on handling layoffs with care.
Kenneth W. Freeman (Former CEO of Quest Diagnostics) writes in Harvard Business Review that leaders have to be "visible and personal" when speaking to laid-off employees. Top leaders should be the ones explaining in detail exactly why the layoff is happening and how it will affect the employees, down to the timeline, severance, and what the company is going to do to ease the transition. "Communicate until it hurts," he says, and "keep people constantly informed all along the way. Counter the rumor mill with frequent town meetings and forthrightly tell people the truth."
One keystone of this is that leaders will have to take personal responsibility for the decisions. They can of course explain why they made the decision, but it is important for them to say that they are the ones that made the call.
Sudden departures can make a mess of team workloads, so prior to the layoff, the decision-making leader should have laid the groundwork with team leaders to prepare them to handle the fallout of missing people. This means it is the decision-maker's responsibility to (1) provide team leaders plenty of time to plan how to pick up the displaced work, and (2) ensure that team leaders actually have planned adequately. There will always be some additional complications, so they should also make sure that managers on the ground will be supported and able to assist, listen, and help pick up unexpected work on the fly.
Another important part of the layoff process is caring for the employees who remain, as MIT Sloan details in their layoff guide. There should be an ample, private time for leaders to meet with the retained employees. They should detail as much as possible who is leaving, why, and what is being done to support them. Leaders should be prepared to explain the timeline and process, and also explain who is going to do the work of the departing employees (or if that work will continue). Then let employees know what the next few days will look like. After a few days of handling essential business, a follow-up meeting is best so that employees can ask questions after a period of adjustment and a chance to absorb the news.
Above all, remember the human impact of layoffs. The people leaving go through enormous financial and emotional stress. Some even suffer physical symptoms or mental health impacts. Consider providing departing employees with a substantial period of counseling, job search support, and extension of their health benefits (this may require the employer paying a premium under COBRA). If workable, consider electing not to contest the employees' unemployment insurance claims. Find ways to be supportive allies to the displaced employees. Be sure supervisors are ready to provide letters of recommendation. The Society for Human Resource Management has a helpful page covering some of the typical options for assisting laid-off employees.
In the period after a layoff, there will be effects on your remaining workforce. The MIT Sloan guide reminds us "People may show signs of anxiety, lack of commitment, and even a decrease in productivity and creativity" after layoffs. This is normal, but workplaces will have to lead through it. Keep the doors open for feedback as always. Continue communication, and focus on the future, but don't pretend the layoffs never happened.
Leading with care is a core principle at Amazing Workplace. Our surveys can help you overcome the negative effects of layoffs by responding to your workforce with listening and action. You can get started here.