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Six ways to lay people off humanely

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

picture of a woman sitting on a bench with a box of possessions next to her...she has her face in her hands

I worked for CH2M for 28 years. Then it was acquired. My boss scheduled a call with me. Before the call, an HR person appeared. I knew immediately what was coming next.

How did I know? I’d been on the other side.

Once I had to cut 1/3 of my 70-person team. For no good reason. It was the hardest situation I’ve ever managed.

My boss was clearly upset about the decision. I realized later why I was the first to be let go. (That’s another story.) Honestly, her sadness made it a bit easier for me.

They gave me a choice:

  • Find another position within the next two weeks

  • Take my severance and depart

This choice helped me leave with my dignity intact. I had a few internal offers, but decided to leave. My department was toxic. I couldn’t work in a company that allowed this to continue.

newspaper headline that says "City Layoffs: More COVID-19 fallout"

Next I landed what seemed like the perfect job. Alas, it was far from it.

A year later I got laid off. This time it was not done compassionately. It also made no sense.

I was managing a website revamp. They wanted me to stay on to finish the revamp.

Talk about soul sucking. I had to sing the company’s praises while knowing what lay underneath.

I've been on both sides.

I've seen it done well and badly.

And when I had to lay people off, I tried to make it just a little less painful for the employees.

Another real-life example: last week the CEOs of both Stripe and Twitter announced their companies would be making layoffs.

CEO Patrick Collison had Stripe set up an alumni directory. He announced to his whole network the directory would be available for other companies to hire his staff. Compare these tweets:

Elon Musk is defensive and almost accusatory in his tweet. Twitter staff received an email about the layoffs, which was signed "Twitter." It was the first communication Twitter employees had received from Musk since he took over the company.

Hundreds of Twitter employees were immediately cut off from their work email and Slack channels overnight before being notified they were being laid off.

On the other hand, Stripe's Collison actually blamed himself and other leaders for making errors of judgment in financial matters. He took full responsibility for the errors and committed to correcting the mistakes. He also committed to rein in all other costs. This is how inclusive and transparent leadership works.

Here are six ways to do layoffs a little more Humanely:

1. Keep your best performers.

Make a grid of all employees with age, race, gender, salary, and performance ratings. First I focused on the performance ratings. I tried to protect people who were nonwhite and 50+. Research shows Black and Latino workers are most likely to be laid off. Women are not far behind. (When I was laid off, they did not consider my performance. I was also over 50. They only looked at my salary. Ageism is real, y’all.)

diverse employees in the workplace

2. Communicate with your leaders and look for creative alternatives.

When I had to cut 1/3 of my team, two of my leaders offered to take early retirement. Some people went on call and others part-time.

3. Give your staff advance warning.

Although it can be uncomfortable, it’s better to give someone warning. Then they can start preparing. Ideally, give them four to eight weeks’ notice.

4. Be kind.

Let your employees know how this is difficult. Offer to give them a reference or a LinkedIn recommendation. Let the employee communicate with their colleagues. Do not block communications.

5. Let them pack up at another time.

Unless the employee is a sabotage risk or you’re in a competitive industry, do not escort them out the door. Ask when they would like to pack up their office. Arrange for another employee to assist.

6. Communicate with the survivors!

Few people communicate effectively about layoffs. Then the rumor mill goes haywire. It also looks sketchy. Call your team together and explain the situation. Be transparent about why the decision was made. But honor the laid-off employees’ dignity by not sharing details. Communicate with the whole company by email, thanking your employees for their service.

Layoffs are awful. Often they are a lazy way out of financial or efficiency problems. With a little creative thinking, these problems can often be solved in better ways.

If you are a compassionate person, laying off your staff can be heartbreaking. Following these simple steps makes the process a little more humane.

Let me know if you could use help with inclusive communications and leadership.

I help professional services firms avoid BORING and boost employee engagement, productivity, and readership. I translate technical, complex, and lackluster language into accessible, dynamic, story-driven text. Get known in your industry through outstanding thought leadership content. Walk your talk through outstanding, effective communications with your employees and clients.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.


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