Ask a Resourceful Human: Getting better at layoffs

One HR expert has advice on a kinder way to say goodbye to employees.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Welcome to our regular HR advice column, Ask a Resourceful Human. Here to answer all of your burning questions is Massella Dukuly, the head of workplace strategy and innovation at Charter, a future-of-work media and research company that aims to transform the workplace. Dukuly has trained over 10,000 leaders at startups and global enterprises, including Squarespace and the New York Times. Download Charter’s latest free playbook Keeping Culture at the Center here.

What are best practices for handling downsizing in a way that offers dignity to the individual and keeps former employees engaged after their departure? And what is the best approach for communicating with the remaining employees?

The discomfort of downsizing can push some leaders into a logistics mindset. How will we do this? When will we do this? Essentially, how painless can we make this process?

Painless is perhaps not realistic. Even when layoffs are done well, they still suck, and laid-off employees typically won’t be shy about sharing their experiences.

But humane layoffs are possible, as is supporting your remaining team.

Messaging. How you talk about downsizing is key. While your CEO will be responsible for layoff messaging to the wider organization, they need your support. Your job, as a leader on the people team, is to ensure any messaging from your CEO or from anyone else communicates empathy and compassion. I have seen the consequences of not doing this and trust me, it’s not pretty. One wrong sentence can backfire.

Pro tips for what your messaging should include:

  • Acknowledgment and accountability. You are likely downsizing because the business is financially strained (or you believe that it will be soon). Take ownership of the decisions that led to this point. Saying, “We made a mistake” creates a path for your team—those departing and those staying—to move forward.
  • The why. It’s a misstep to assume that everyone understands the reasoning behind the layoffs. Articulate what is causing financial strain and get as specific as you can. Include what the organization has done to rectify the problem before it reached the point of necessary layof
  • Offboarding support. What your company will do to support laid-off employees, and how long this support will last.
  • Support for those staying. What your company will do to support employees who are staying and how these cuts may impact the company going forward.
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Budget generously. Budget conversations feel impossible during downsizing, and budgeting generously for layoffs is difficult when the resources are not available. At the very least, have a conversation with your CFO and finance team to determine where you can be generous when it comes to exit packages. If you can’t extend the amount of weeks someone is being paid, consider longer access to health insurance, or choosing the date the layoff happens so that people might have access to health coverage for longer. You can be more creative here than you think.

Design with the “customer” in mind. The end of a role, voluntary or involuntary, is part of the employee experience and it should be treated as such. Imagine if you went on a lovely vacation and on the very last day, the hotel manager banged on your door at 8am, removed access from your key card unknowingly, and threw your suitcases to the curb. This sounds extreme, but some layoffs are just like this. Consider the ways you want to make this easier for those departing and those staying.

You might consider:

  • Do ex-employees know who their point of contact is when the dust settles?
  • Have you made it easy for them to either keep or give back their equipment?
  • Will they have enough time to access anything they need before they’re locked out?
  • Will there be space for team members to say their goodbyes?

For those who remain: Create space for processing. Acting like things are business as usual will only backfire. Give people time to process and come to terms with what’s happened. This doesn’t need to be prolonged, as the team will need to take steps forward, but it’s important that questions are welcomed and that the needs of the remaining team are clear as everyone readjusts.
Layoffs are tough, and something many of us will have to manage as HR practitioners at some point. Let’s raise the bar for how they’re done.—MD

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.