7 HR Tips for Handling Employee Layoffs

handling layoffs

As part of our HRreads book club, we read Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. The dark yet humorous novel depicts a period of paranoia as a failing ad company faces employee layoffs. Though the novel reveals the anxiety and tension from the employee perspective, HR is all too familiar with the hazards and consequences of company downsizing.

“At first we called it what you would expect—getting laid off, being let go. Then we got creative. We said he’d gotten the ax, she’d been ****canned. Lately, a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. ‘Walking Spanish down the hall.’”

As the pseudo-mediator between employee and employer, HR is often tasked with delivering difficult news. While letting employees go is always going to be a difficult conversation, we spoke to seven HR professionals about how to layoff an employee with compassion and grace.

1. Show Empathy

“Remember that while it is uncomfortable for you to communicate your message, it is life-altering for the employee receiving it.”

- Anonymous, HR Manager


2. Depersonalize the Decision

“Know and make it clear that it isn't a personal decision, but a business decision. It has nothing to do with performance.”

- Jackson Stodgel, Human Resources Coordinator at IXL Learning


3. Be Considerate

“Be considerate. All parties in a layoff have families and personal situations that should be reflected in the way the layoff is occurring. Employee layoffs are a part of business but can be handled in a respectful manner.”

- Mary Lanier-Evans, People & Culture Officer at 360training.com


4. Plan Ahead

“Be organized in your approach. Layoffs are never fun, but for HR, it's one of the most critical times to be cool, calm, and collected. Carefully planning who knows what, when, and in what way can make the difference between a well-orchestrated event, and mass chaos and confusion. Owning communication and working closely with management to ensure the right people are in the know ahead of time is one of the best ways of still preserving relationships and mutual respect among your existing and departing teams. When faced with an upcoming layoff, plan everything that’s within your scope of control, like the time you'll meet to share the news with managers, peers, departments, and individuals. Document what you'll discuss in each so that everyone is given information that is accurate, timely, and pertinent.”

- Anonymous, Director of HR


5. Be Direct

“While employees will always remember how a layoff was handled, they may not remember why they were laid off. Don’t beat around the bush. Be straightforward and don’t draw it out. No one wants to be limbo about their job and the second the phrase ‘layoff’ is uttered, you can expect the office to get tense. If possible, offer basic resources to the employees being laid off such as a partnership with a local recruiting agency where the employee can send their resume. It won’t cost the company anything and shows a good-will effort.”

- Caleb Wood, Administrator, Payroll and HRIS at Kestra Financial, Inc.


6. Offer Transitional Support

“Treat employees the right way. When you set your employees up for success with severance, benefits, and references or assistance finding another job, you can make the employee layoff process a little less painful. Knowing that your company takes care of their employees during hard times will also help the morale of the employees staying at the company.”

- Jessica Neves, People Operations Manager, Longboard Asset Management


7. Provide a Physical Takeaway

“If the situation allows for it, prepare! Before delivering the message, get a packet together that explains the following: last paycheck info, 401k info, COBRA info, any required notices. Basically, anything that you would want to know if you were laid off."

One of the benefits of doing this is that whoever delivers the message can conclude by encouraging the employee to carefully review the information packet, and then follow-up with questions at a later time.

It makes for a natural and less uncomfortable end to the conversation. Hopefully.”

- Jovanny Chonillo, People Manager at Labelmaster

“It was a shrill, carping, frenzied time, and as poisonous an atmosphere as anyone had ever known—and we wanted nothing more than to stay in it forever.”

Employee layoffs can be detrimental to company morale and employee engagement, so it’s important to act as an ongoing resource to the remainder of your workforce. Consider the reactions and fears of other employees during and after a period of layoffs, and be sure to let them know you’re there to support them through the difficult times.

Topics: Talent, Employee Experience

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