Computer access shut down in minutes, not enough time to say goodbye to co-workers, no explanation on termination or words of gratitude after a decade of care and commitment to an organization?

Why are layoffs typically handled in such an inhuman way?

While most executives do their best to prevent layoffs, they are unfortunately an inevitable reality of running a profitable and thriving organization. However, leading with humanity in executing these decisions is a choice available to leaders and unfortunately many are missing the mark here. 

Compassion and empathy are possible in a layoff. Strategic decision-making in a human-centric way is not at odds with each other. You can deliver hard news that uproots people’s lives and careers and disappoints them but still do it with a little more care than what we typically see in most organizations today. 

This matters because no one is winning in the current state. Employees who lose their jobs often navigate significant challenges but when dealt with this blow with a lack of humanity, the trauma and grief are further amplified. What’s often not acknowledged is the pain and grief experienced by the employees left behind and the subsequent negative impacts on employee productivity and business outcomes for the organization as a whole. 

What if more leaders could choose a different path here? 

One that is more compassionate and is, fortunately, being modeled by a few leaders and organizations today?

I recently spoke with a friend who was laid off but was done with so much grace and dignity that even though she was disappointed she still spoke so highly of her prior organization, the leadership, and the values they embodied especially in the hard moments. 

This should be the gold standard all employers should aspire toward. 

Here are five things executives and leaders can do when managing a layoff to minimize the human cost and disruption for everyone involved. 

  1. Take Responsibility: A good leader takes responsibility for their decisions. While it is true there likely are many macroeconomic factors at play that have likely influenced the myriad of layoffs happening around us, ultimately, a good leader takes responsibility for the situation. It demonstrates humility, maturity, and courage to own the decision instead of blaming other factors and individuals. While this doesn’t change the outcome for the impacted employees, it helps build a bit more trust when so much of the stable ground for the relationship is shaking. 
  2. Be Radically Transparent: Finding the right balance between sharing the right information at the right time is genuinely hard. However, providing guidance on a few pieces of information can go a long way in building trust. For example, there is a good chance that different alternatives were considered before settling on the decision of letting the chosen 250 employees go.  What was the rationale for the decision to eliminate department X over department Y? Let your people see your grief and sadness with these decisions around the loss of your people and they can know that you feel the pain of the implications on your people who had given so much to your team and organization.
  3. Don’t Ignore your DEIB commitment: Ensure that there is an objective lens on ensuring fairness on who is being impacted, details of their severance packages, and the communication going out to all employees. If there are more women, more black or LGBTQ employees impacted, employees will notice, ask you the hard questions and you will be held accountable even if your intent wasn’t discrimination. Treat these layoffs as a high-priority project, and allocate resources just like you would treat any other important company priority. 
  4. Walk employees out with dignity & respect: This one feels so obvious but I am still saddened by the number of stories I hear where employees aren’t treated with the dignity they deserve. Make sure you thank them at larger forums like an all-hands meeting. Give them space to say their goodbyes so they can bring a bit of closure to this chapter. Give them severance as best as you can and provide resources to help them find their next role. 
  5. Take care of the employees left behind: This one is often overlooked but has the greatest impact on your business. The people who are left behind can experience fear and anxiety of another potential layoff. There can be the grief of losing a close co-worker. The change and restructuring can take some time to settle in. Acknowledge the challenges for the people who are left behind and communicate with integrity. If you know there isn’t another layoff expected in the next x months, let them know. If there will be a potential reorganization in department Y, communicate proactively. If raises will be lower for the entire company, don’t keep them guessing that their performance was the driver and set the right expectations. And most importantly, bring care, empathy, and kindness in your everyday interactions such as 1:1s without lowering the performance expectations of your people. Both can co-exist – a high-performance team that is led with care, clarity, and compassion.  

I hope that there will be a point in the not-so-distant future where an essay like this will never need to be written because managing layoffs with humanity will be the norm. I hope that we can count on executives to lead with care even while making hard decisions like making employees go so we can collectively reduce the trauma humans go through at work while creating thriving cultures and greater efficiencies within organizations. 

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