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Layoffs: How to Avoid Adding Insult to Injury

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our company probably has layoffs coming up. Some employees will lose their jobs, and most remaining employees will have to take on extra work to keep things going. Some of our employees have been in the same position for more than 20 years.

The “you are getting laid off” conversation is stressful, with potential for silence and verbal violence, as well as wrongful termination lawsuits. Our attorney advises that the less said during those conversations, the better.

Our administrators are really dreading these conversations. Do you have any advice for them?

Bad News

Dear Bad News,

Let’s be clear—getting laid off is horrible. It fills those laid off with uncertainty. It throws families into turmoil. It causes people to doubt their worth and capacity. And it can spread mistrust and paralysis through an organization.

Leaders tend to consistently underestimate the costs of layoffs and the price they’ll pay to rebuild capacity when things turn around. With that said, there are times when the organization’s survival demands it. It’s better to lose 10 percent of the workforce now than lose 100 percent later.

I say all of this simply to acknowledge that no matter how well you follow the advice I offer, there will still be pain. There’s a big difference between being cut by a surgeon who cares about you and being cut by a mugger in an alley. Far too many organizations behave like muggers during layoffs.

I’ll never forget a dear friend describing what it was like to have security guards show up unannounced to his office and stand by him as he filled the four cartons provided to him with the belongings he’d accumulated over years in his position. He thought that arriving to the lofty position of vice president would have earned him a little more consideration. But the lawyers were running this show and cared only for organizational defense and not at all for personal dignity. For months he struggled, not just with the pain of joblessness, but also with the insult of the process.

As a leader, I have faced these challenges. Let me share what I think turns leaders into surgeons rather than muggers. But first let me begin with a strong ethical assertion: Nothing reveals a leader’s soul more than the way he or she handles necessary dismissals. Unless you are willing to sacrifice time, money, and personal pain in the service of those you are dismissing, you deserve no loyalty from those who remain.

With that as a backdrop, here are some things that can help you avoid adding insult to the injury of layoffs:

Be Immediately Transparent about Possibilities and Certainties

I know all the arguments for being sparing and thoughtful about sharing sensitive information—but I also believe that most of these assume employees can’t be treated like adults. Leaders sometimes fear that if they suggest layoffs are possible in the future, they’ll spur voluntary turnover of key employees. Furthermore, they argue that you take employees’ eyes off the ball when you hint at downsizing. I find the opposite to be true. When you establish a track record of early communication, you avoid the crippling loss of attention caused by mistrust. In the absence of prompt leadership communication, you don’t get focus, you get rumors. And rumors cost far more in the long run than any downside of prompt transparency.

Feel Pain When You Deliver Pain

If you have bad news to deliver, give it face-to-face. Don’t try to protect yourself from discomfort by delivering e-pink slips or other mass messages. You expected these people to be loyal to you, now is your chance to show loyalty in return by demonstrating your willingness to suffer with them. Don’t be afraid to tell them how agonizing it is for you while sympathizing with their plight. If you feel sick to your stomach, say so. If you feel like crying, a tear can help them know they’re not in this alone—someone truly cares. However, before doing anything, make sure your actions are completely sincere.

Respond to Anger with Compassion

If someone becomes upset, angry, or accusatory, you need not respond to the content of their statements. Your HR professionals will obviously tell you (appropriately) that this is not the time to make authoritative statements which could be discovered later. But by all means, respond sincerely to the emotion. For example, if someone says, “This is a croc, you’re just using this downsizing to get rid of anyone who’s not one of the good old boys.” You should be aware of and compliant with what you are authorized to share about the decision-making process involved in the downsizing. But in any event you can say, “I’ve done my best to follow the policies I was given in the downsizing. And I am sick at heart that it is coming down badly on you. I am sorry for the turmoil this will cause you and assure you I will help in your transition any way I can.” While this statement won’t take away the pain, it at least helps you avoid causing the added pain you would if you were clinical, political, or defensive.

Be As Generous As Possible

As I stated earlier, your willingness to sacrifice for those leaving is THE determinant of how much trust you’ll have with those remaining. Always side on generosity when you attend to the needs of those you’re laying off.

Replace General Insincerity with Specific Commitments

No matter how stingy or generous your company chooses to be in the layoffs, you can offer your own support—which is often more personal and meaningful when you’re sharing the bad news. Have a list of things you can personally offer, depending on the needs of those you’re letting go. For example, you might say, “I know you will need to put together a portfolio of your graphic design skills when you float your resume. In the next few days I’m going to ask our legal department to authorize your use of some of the best ones you’ve made here.” A specific offer of two or three things you can do for the individuals you are laying off will tell them a lot more about your sincerity than general “If there’s anything I can do…” statements.

If your managers demonstrate vulnerability, empathy, and sacrifice during this process of layoffs, you’ll get through it without allowing awful necessity to turn into unnecessary alienation. I wish you the best.


PS. Learn more with our free guide for leaders: How to Lead through Layoffs.

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3 thoughts on “Layoffs: How to Avoid Adding Insult to Injury”

  1. georgewilhelmsen

    Yep, the last boss at my previous company was a mugger in the alley. I decision had been made to demote the position I was in, which was a change in plans. He said he needed to talk to me, closed the door and said “You’re being demoted.”

    While this isn’t as heartbreaking as working for a company for 20 years and getting laid off, it goes directly to the comment about empathy and how to deliver bad news.

    This guy had the tact of battery acid. I retired a few months later due to his continued inability to communicate and lead.

  2. C. P.

    I’ve been through a few rounds of layoffs at various companies. Its definitely more rare to have a sincere surgeon, and much more common to have a hard mugging in the alley!

    I had one boss who tended towards the mugger path, but I will never forget her because she was also 100% transparent about the process. She gave us notice when management was thinking about layoffs, and gave us time to help prepare ourselves for the process. She also gave us advice about how to handle it and what to do if we were laid off so that we could be ready. When the actual layoff happened months later, it was a “meeting in HR and march to security” type layoff, but it hit differently than other times I was struck by the mugger approach. I had savings built up and my portfolio ready to go and had a new job within a week.

    I think of her when I read about the horrible layoffs in the paper from the tech companies. She was a gift even if she wasn’t a great boss the rest of the time.

    1. Ellen

      The only time I had been laid off (30 years ago), my supervisor was the best surgeon ever. It was a mass layoff and each manager had to wait until a certain time to give the notices. Mine stayed away from me until the mandatory time. He told me that he couldn’t be near me knowing what he had to do. When he gave me the news, which was expected (every admin having less than 4 years of service would be let go, as other admins in the union with longer tenure will be spread around) I felt as though I had to console him. He will forever be in my heart. I think I will try to locate him.

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