The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 has forced many companies to lay off employees just to stay afloat and mitigate the impact. Preparing for layoffs can feel daunting, the execution is often painful, and the aftermath will determine the future of your company.
There is a strange and uncomfortable dichotomy that exists in a layoff situation. On one side, you have the company’s interests of preserving money and managing risk, and on the other side, you have the employee’s strain and their concern for their family, their wellbeing, and their future.
And then there’s you.
Whether you’re the CEO, HR manager, or a small business owner, you’re faced with navigating this difficult time while maintaining dignity and honor. You are balancing on a tightrope between corporate responsibility and humanity. They're not just employees, they're people. Your people. How you, as a leader, choose to operate in these challenging times will determine your legacy, and it can’t be undone. As mindful leaders, let’s do the right thing in one of the most difficult moments of our lives and professional careers. Here’s how to navigate layoffs while honoring your purpose, values, and people.
“Change is difficult, but it can be managed when you stay aware of the power of your choices, even if it’s simply your attitude.” Michael Thomas Sunnarborg, Career Coach & Author
In these uncertain times, many companies are having to lay off employees virtually, which could feel more disconnected than usual. Use your head and your heart simultaneously. We’ve all been there before, even if it wasn't a layoff scenario. We know what it’s like to be the receiver of bad news. Ask yourself how you would want this news delivered to you? Deliver it with empathy and compassion.
Take intention into ACTion [Alignment, Clarity, Transparency]. The companies that follow through with clarity and transparency, and those that live by their purpose and values not only retain someone that might be an employee again in the future, they retain a person loyal to their brand [if not a friend], probably for life.
Be prepared to answer a ton of various questions and address emotions. Remember, it’s okay to be the mirror, not the mechanic; you can't be expected to fix everything, but as a leader, it’s important to let them know they're being heard.
Have a clear plan and strategy in place to execute the layoffs and prepare for the aftermath. Decide how and when you will deliver the news, and remember that the more transparent you are in treating people as human beings, the more they’ll trust and respect the decisions you make.
“For leaders who hesitate with transparency or worry that their decisions will be called into judgment, I remind them: people can usually handle the truth but they can’t handle feeling as if they’ve been deceived or purposely left in the dark. That feeling seeps into the culture and dissolves the conditions that allow people to do their best work.” - Beth Steinberg, Vice President, People and Talent at Chime
Be direct but human. Remember that messages are conveyed in a combination of words, tone, and body language. Give a simple and legitimate reason for the layoff. Then give them the opportunity to ask questions. This is the time for active listening. One of the questions on their mind, especially right now, could be how their health insurance will be impacted. When will it lapse? How do they rollover their 401k? Make sure you communicate all the ways this layoff will affect them.
One of our former clients, National Business Capital and Services went above and beyond to ensure their employees received top-quality care and benefits. It paid off when they were awarded as a Top Work Place in 2019. Just recently, however, their President & Co-Founder, Joe Camberato, shared that he had to make some very difficult cuts, which was very hard on him. A few days later, one of the employees he laid off sent him donuts and coffee and said, ‘I know you are doing everything you can right now to get us back and rockin’ and rolling, so I figured you would need some coffee and donuts because I know you are going to be working late.’ Joe said, “It made me emotional, and it was one of the nicest things. And that employee is a rockstar, and he’s even volunteered his time through this.”
Joe’s story teaches us that if you focus on culture when times are good, you will see the humanity in everyone, even after delivering life-changing news. What’s determining a company’s success or failure right now is whether or not they have committed leaders that care. Thanks to the commitment of people like Joe, his team is reciprocating it to him during these times of crisis.
If you become a beacon of culture, you’ll witness the ROI from a monetary standpoint and the other ROI [Return on Impact] because of your empathy and compassion, and truly knowing your team and what’s most important to them.
“Layoffs transform all founders and confirm some as leaders.” - - Beth Steinberg, Vice President, People and Talent at Chime
How you steer the course following your company’s layoffs is just as important as the decision itself. The sooner you disseminate the news to the rest of your team, the better. Rumors of layoffs can greatly affect morale, so communicate the truth and reassure the rest of the team that they are safe for the time being.
Treat it as a grieving period for all employees. Many of them may have developed close relationships, which are now altered.
As for the people you’ve let go, try to create a personal touch-point after the fact. A hand-written letter that says ‘thank you’ and expresses your gratitude can do wonders. It’s a gesture that says they are appreciated and won’t be forgotten.
I’ve learned that an adaptive life equally applies to being an adaptive organization, which is why I call this The Adaptive Age. As you rebuild, you should look at the health of your culture today and what you want it to look like in the near and distant future.
With the only constant being unpredictable change around us, the best we can do is to focus on what we can control and embrace and adapt to the things we can’t.
Let’s remember that in the good times, the bad times, and the ever-changing times, your culture [and your caring] are table stakes for your team and company.