America has experienced unprecedented mass layoffs as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe.
Over the past few months, business owners and managers have faced tough decisions about whether to lay off staff, which staff to let go and how to communicate the choices both to those whose positions are eliminated and to those who remain on the payroll. Handling both groups with respect and honesty will help minimize the negative impact downsizing can have on an organization, its culture and employee morale.
Letting people go is always emotional and unpleasant, and even more so during a global health crisis when fear and stress levels already are high. When COVID-19 business downturns necessitate employee layoffs, it’s more important than ever to treat those who are losing their jobs with compassion and empathy.
Employers who adopt the following best practices will help employees leave with dignity and demonstrate to layoff survivors the company cares about people – both those who have been let go and those who remain:
- Deliver the news face-to-face, which during the coronavirus outbreak may mean having a conversation via video conference. Take extra care to convey sympathy.
- Avoid having the conversation on a Friday. The fact that unemployment and other resources for finances and job searches are less available over the weekend can create additional stress for separated employees. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests it may be best to let employees know about the change in status on a Tuesday, but any day besides Friday is acceptable.
- Communicate clearly and concisely. Imparting a short, direct message allows the other person to more easily process what you’re saying, especially when the news is unwelcome. For example, you might start by saying: “I’m sorry, but we are terminating your position effective next week.”
- Express gratitude. Compliment some aspect of the employee’s past performance and stress that the person did nothing wrong and that the termination is not anyone’s fault.
- Offer assistance. Ideally, that means outplacement services. But help can come in many forms, from providing ideas about where to look for a new job to writing a letter of recommendation.
- Be honest. Don’t candy-coat the news or promise anything you cannot guarantee, such as implying you can rehire a terminated employee when the company’s financial position improves.
- Listen. Give employees the opportunity to express their fears or anger and respond in a calm, sensitive manner.
- Answer questions. Be prepared to address logistical concerns, such as the status of the employee’s last paycheck, health insurance and 401(k) account.
The same principles outlined above apply when communicating with remaining employees about the company’s layoffs. “Survivors,” as they are often called, also will have concerns and questions. They may experience a range of emotions that could include guilt that they did not lose their jobs, sadness over the loss of a colleague, trepidation related to an anticipated increase in responsibilities, fear that their own jobs may be at risk in the future and anger toward the company.
Acknowledge employees’ feelings and provide regular opportunities to discuss the emotions they’re experiencing. Reassure them through words and actions, such as providing additional career development opportunities that demonstrate how much you value them.
Be as honest as possible about why the layoffs were necessary and how the company plans to adapt. If possible, hold one-on-one meetings with employees who remain, so you can personally stress the important roles they play in the organization’s ongoing success.
Showing compassion and respect to employees, whether they’re leaving or staying, is always the right approach. Besides mitigating ill will on the part of the departing employees, it helps surviving team members feel valued and remain productive.