One of the unfortunate realities of the COVID-19 crisis is the impact it has had on jobs and on the unemployment rate. Businesses of all sizes have felt the impact, with many forced to reduce their workforce and others facing a reduction in the coming weeks and months.
Any leader, from small business owner to department head to executive, will tell you that laying off staff is one of the most difficult aspects of their job. But the fact is that making the difficult decision to furlough or lay off staff in order to preserve the business is a choice that sometimes must be made.
Whether this is your first time downsizing or you’ve faced this challenge before, it’s important to do it well for the sake of all employees. Here are some guidelines to consider if it becomes necessary to reduce your workforce.
First: Prepare well
Be aware of how visible your preparation is
Laying off staff is preceded by much conversation and analysis. It’s important to keep this part of the process confidential while at the same time not alarming staff or arousing suspicion before you are ready to communicate.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, these conversations would happen behind closed doors or in off-site meetings. In times of crisis, the appearance of such meetings can raise alarms among staff, which turn into morale- and productivity-killing gossip.
In a post-COVID world, those conversations are happening remotely and there is a greater amount of physical privacy. However, be mindful of your calendar — there may be more attention paid to your schedule. Do what you can to ensure that meeting subjects, participants, and agendas are documented in a way that is appropriately confidential without raising alarm.
Communicate early, but not too early
In an effort to be transparent and keep staff meaningfully informed, leaders often make the mistake of sharing news too early — before they have all the information employees will need. While the intent is virtuous, it is important to remember that ambiguity is unkind. And when there aren’t answers about their health insurance and paychecks, it causes employees unnecessary stress. Wait to communicate news of layoffs until you are prepared to answer specific questions about who is impacted, timing, final paychecks, availability and pricing of COBRA, etc.
When it comes to layoffs, it’s all public
The minute news of a layoff is shared, it becomes public knowledge. It is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect staff to keep their employment status a secret so it is critical to plan the timing of communications about layoffs to your clients, your vendors, your bank, or the public.
Next: Communicate Well
Communicating to those employees being let go.
When telling someone they are being laid off, come prepared with a concise message. Be clear, be brief, be empathetic. Let them know you feel badly about letting them go and that you care about them (if these things are true), but under no circumstances make your feelings of sadness or stress the employee’s problem. Having clear boundaries is critical at this moment. Do everything you can to prepare yourself to be as professional as possible.
After you tell an employee that they are being laid off, make sure that the rest of the information that you share is documented and available as paperwork for them. The shock of hearing the news (even when it’s not all that shocking) may keep them from absorbing all the information you share over the next several minutes. In a pre-COVID world, this would mean you’d have paperwork to hand them about the details of timing, their final paycheck, etc. In a post-COVID world, plan to screen share during the conversation then email the documentation.
If they are an employee you’d recommend, offer to do so. Let them know that you are willing to help them make connections (via LinkedIn, via email or phone), review their resume, and/or provide a recommendation.
Consider timing and provide choice.
It is not ideal to be laid off at the beginning of the workweek or at the very end. Wednesday or Thursday are better choices as they give employees the option of working until the end of the week or having a few days to say good-bye to coworkers. If possible, allowing them the choice to wrap up their work over the course of a day or two preserves their dignity and sense of control. It also engenders more goodwill than making an announcement and cutting them off from their work and their team immediately. Current and former employees make the best brand ambassadors so doing the utmost to preserve relationships is a good practice.
Communicating to those employees who are staying
This group often gets forgotten in the preparation and stress of the process. However, it is equally important to communicate well with them. They’ll be paying close attention to how you conduct the layoffs and how you talk about the staff being let go, and it will impact their desire and willingness to show up and put their heart into their work.
Make sure you share the news with them as soon as possible, that you preserve the dignity and privacy of employees who were laid off, that you offer them a chance to ask questions, and that if you are able to offer reassurance you do so. Make sure that you convey the same message to those who were let go and to those who are staying as it is highly likely they will compare notes. Encourage them to reach out to their colleagues who were let go and offer support. Make it clear that layoffs are not contagious and that their support for their former colleagues will be appreciated.
Finally: Follow up well
Following up with those employees who were let go
Follow up within a week to see if they have any questions about their paperwork, unemployment, or benefit options. Reiterate your offer to help them make connections and provide recommendations. If you have the time and inclination, offer to do a resume review or make a personal introduction. You never know when a former employee may be in a position to recommend or hire your firm.
Following up with those employees who remain
Keep connected and keep them updated. If you are able to offer reassurances, continue to do so. Be aware of the fact that layoffs are traumatic for everyone — even those who are not let go — and that survivor guilt is a real thing. Encourage them to take care of themselves. And continue to encourage them to reach out to their former colleagues with concrete, meaningful support.
Difficult business conversations can be overwhelming. If you need help preparing for or communicating difficult messages to your leadership team or staff, we offer coaching, training, and support.
This post was co-authored by Mahtab Rezai and Kasey Ross.