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How to handle layoffs with compassion and transparency

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Bryan Clark
Story by
Bryan Clark

Former Managing Editor, TNW — Bryan is a freelance journalist. Bryan is a freelance journalist.

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Highs never last. Lows seemingly never end. In the business world, this is where we find ourselves, trapped somewhere between the economic boom of the previous half-decade, and the doomsday scenario of a global recession as predicted by some economists. 

COVID-19 changed everything, both in business and in our daily lives. For some, the change wasn’t all that dramatic: a slight pay cut perhaps, or the move to working from a home office. Others weren’t so fortunate. Since the start of the pandemic, the United States alone shed some 20.5 million jobs. It gets worse. 

According to the United Nations, nearly half of the global workforce is in danger of job loss due to COVID-19. A recent poll of 114 human resources professionals conducted by the Guelph Chamber of Commerce and Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, backed this up, stating that the leading strategy employed by businesses to date, in an effort to cut costs, was laying off workers. 

This paints a grim picture for most businesses. For many, layoffs are going to be inevitable. Survival doesn’t come easily during periods of financial uncertainty. 

And though we find ourselves in these difficult positions, there are things we can do — as owners, managers, and HR professionals — to ease some of the burden, both on the employees and the business, and retain some semblance of company culture along the way. 

Perhaps the most effective piece of advice is to start formulating a plan before you’re forced to act on it. Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of CityCV, a UK-based career consultancy, says it’s best to “plan ahead and get [employers’] outplacement services in place before they need to make [decisions about] redundancies.” 

“When you rush the redundancy process, you risk it coming across as overly harsh and uncaring. It can really damage your brand and leaves your retained employees with low morale, which means low productivity and loyalty,” she notes.

From there, transparency is key. Not just during the layoff process, but before, as this is when anxiety surrounding job loss is at its highest. “It’s harder to prepare for a more sudden need to let employees go, but you should aim to be honest about the company’s profitability and performance,” Claire Williams, director of people and services at CIPHR, a UK-based HR software provider, told me. “When the time comes to have that difficult conversation and make them aware of the need to make layoffs, the employee understands and doesn’t take the decision too personally.”

It sounds simple enough, but we’re living in an age of mass layoffs via email, or even Zoom chats, so it bears repeating. The best and most people-centric approach to layoffs is to think about the people facing the sudden prospect of unemployment. 

But don’t pander. When dealing with adults, few care about how terrible you have to feel for firing them. They’re worried about where their next paycheck is coming from, how to feed their family, and whether they can make their next mortgage payment. “Do not sugar coat your message or start with how sorry you feel; your feelings are irrelevant,” said Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, a firm specializing in virtual team-building exercises. He recommends being direct, delivering the message something like this: “We are initiating layoffs so that you can apply for unemployment benefits. The effective date is X and the next step is Y.” 

In an ideal world, the employees you have to lay off will one day be able to return. It’s not a certainty, of course, but it should be the desired result in any people-first organization to bring back those they had to cut loose.

According to Glassdoor, hiring back former employees also makes a lot of financial sense. It cuts the costly and time-consuming hiring process by up to 50% in some cases. 

Of course, it takes tact. “It pays to take practical steps to stay connected and maintain positive relationships with talented people you may want to rehire at some point,” McClean says. It’s worth checking in occasionally, if only to show you’re concerned with how they’re getting along, and to offer your help, where needed — whether a reference, a job lead, or assistance in applying for government assistance programs started during the pandemic.

When you’re ready to start bringing employees back, it’s really as simple as picking up the phone and telling them the good news. Some, of course, will have moved on, but others will be elated. 

Upon their return, don’t celebrate it. “Your employees will likely be grateful to return to work,” said Alexis. “But their friends and coworkers may still be out of work and navigating a very difficult time.” Acknowledge their return, but think twice about anything more.

Finally, even if the employee has only been out of work a short time, don’t take it for granted that they won’t need some level of onboarding upon their return. Processes change, as do workflows, and both likely evolved in their absence, especially with a diminished workforce. “Be sure to re-familiarize them with systems, processes, and people in case anything has changed,” Williams notes.

Above all else, it’s worth remembering that these are people, not statistics. Bringing them back should be among your top priorities, should you find you’re able to. And along the way, it never hurts to check-in, even if it’s nothing more than letting them know you’re thinking about them. 

This article is brought to you by ISE.

Published July 21, 2020 — 12:21 UTC