Dos and Don’ts: How to layoff employees with dignity and respect

The fired dudeLayoffs suck. Unless you enjoy causing pain to others, letting employees go can be one of the most heart-wrenching things a leader of an organization has to go through.

But sometimes cuts are unavoidable. Even though layoffs have become a common occurrence in corporate America — especially in recent years — some people conduct them better than others. First-timers, in particular, can struggle with the emotional toll of wielding the ax.

So if this is your first go-around handing out the pink slip (or even if it’s not), keep these dos and don’ts in mind when the day of downsizing arrives.

Although layoffs might signal the end of this business relationship, remember we live in a small world and how you treat employees as they walk out the door can impact the reputation of both you and the company for a long time to come.

  • DO: Speak face to face with all departing team members
  • DO: Get to the point
  • DON’T: Blame others for the decision
  • DO: Show empathy for the departing employee
  • DON’T: Make the layoff up for discussion
  • DO: Offer guidance to the employee in transition
  • DON’T: Make any promises you can’t keep
  • DON’T: Pressure people to sign things they’re not ready to sign
  • DO: End the process amicably

DO: Speak face to face with all departing team members

Although texting, tweeting and emailing all play an important role in communications, a few conversations still work the best face to face. Laying off an employee is one of those moments. When it’s time to let a staffer know of an impending staffing change, you need to find a private place to have a one-on-one conversation (an HR rep can be included as well).

While you can let the person know the meeting place through digital means, the actual news must be told in person. NO TEXTS, NO TWEETS, NO SNAPCHATS, or anything else of that manner.

DO: Get to the point

In a lot of cases, employees will have a pretty good idea of the writing on the wall before you meet with them. But if they have no clue, they should know within about 30 seconds of the beginning of the discussion.

Here’s a good way to begin the conversation:

“Sales at the company have been down, and tough staffing choices have to be made. It is with great regret that I must tell you that the company has decided to eliminate your role at this time.”

Pretty easy to understand what’s going on there, no? Remember, laying off someone is like taking off a Band-Aid. Although it might sting initially when you rip it off quickly, slowly pulling off the bandage usually hurts a lot more.

DON’T: Blame others for the decision

Perhaps you had to choose people in your division to layoff. But oftentimes, the bad-news delivery man is just relaying information from the top down.

Still, if you’ve been placed in that “I’m just the messenger” role, don’t go into a long spiel about how you had nothing to do with the decision. Avoid phrases like, “My supervisor forced me to …” or “If it were up to me I’d keep you, but …” You get to keep your job, so don’t play the victim.

DO: Show empathy for the departing employee

If you’re laying off a lot of employees in one day, you’ll likely notice that people react to layoffs in a myriad of ways. Some will reach acceptance immediately. Others might cry. Some might get angry.

After providing them with the news, your job is to show empathy. If they want to air grievances, let them. If they want to rant and rave for a few minutes, let them (so long as they don’t become physical or disruptive to the entire workplace). If they want to cry, make sure to have tissues readily available.

Remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. One day, the tide might turn.

DON’T: Make the layoff up for discussion

The painful decision has been made, and the employee needs to begin the process of finding a new place to call home. While you need to show compassion for the person affected, you also must make it clear that the decision is 100 percent final. Only after that is made abundantly clear can you move forward with discussing issues such as severance, benefits, and so on.

Moreover, if severance and health benefits are non-negotiable, make that crystal clear.

DO: Offer guidance to the employee in transition

Don’t just break the news and toss the employee out the door. Make sure the employee knows about all of the options available from the company in terms of outplacement. Agree to provide good references to solid employees who leave the company. If you have a close relationship with the employee, offer to make some phone calls on their behalf and check in with them periodically.

DON’T: Make any promises you can’t keep

Although you want to assist your colleagues, don’t lead them on. Don’t promise them you’ll give them a fantastic reference if you don’t feel comfortable with that. Don’t promise them a job back at the company at a later time, even if conditions improve.

Make sure the assistance you agree to provide doesn’t interfere with your work or major personal commitments, such as your family.

DON’T: Pressure people to sign documents they’re not ready to sign

At the end of the conversation, you will likely present a separation agreement to the departing employee upon their termination from the company. Although you might want the employee to sign it immediately to move the process along more quickly, people have the right to discuss this agreement with their family, accountants, and lawyers.

Give them a reasonable time frame to look over the agreement and talk it over with relevant parties before requesting the forms back.

DO: End the process amicably

We understand that, for security reasons, laid-off people often need to exit the building immediately upon termination. You have to find a way to facilitate this while providing dignity to departing personnel. If you feel that employees should be escorted out, either you or someone from human resources should do that rather than 400lb security guards with sunglasses.

If having the employee grab things from their desk is too much for them, offer to ship the items. Better yet, try to find a time to conduct layoffs when not as many people are around to call attention to the situation.

And remember, a thank you and a firm handshake go a long way as the departing employee walks out the door one last time.

Following these nuggets of advice won’t eliminate the consternation of the process. But the dos and don’ts will allow you, the company, and the departing worker to move on with no — or at least less — hard feelings.

The most impactful thing you can do to show your employees you appreciate them, and perhaps to avoid layoffs, is to communicate with employees — genuinely, with their preferences in mind and in real-time.

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