No matter your industry, stage of growth or employee headcount, layoffs suck. As they’re happening, some of them are being handled tragically and others are unfolding embarrassingly and none of that should be happening. Even in a world of remote work and video calls, it is possible for businesses to conduct layoffs in a humane and respectful way. Here are some ground rules.
Check the law (and follow it).
Employees today feel informed and empowered to advocate for themselves — witness the near-immediate lawsuit filed by Twitter employees over the company’s alleged violation of the WARN Act. Before initiating a layoff, find out exactly what you’re legally responsible for in each city and state where you’re laying off employees, then follow that to the letter.
Even better, exceed it by adhering to the highest standard required across geographies, even in locations that require less. Communicate clearly about what you’re doing and why, including when you’re following the law and when you are going above and beyond.
Prepare and plan for full transparency in real time.
Pay transparency is just getting started, and layoff transparency is way ahead. Employees have access to multiple communication channels and believe any information about decisions that might affect them is theirs to share, so assume that everything you say or do will be distributed internally, publicly and immediately. This means that any statement you share with employees may be posted online or shared with the media and anything you tell one employee will be automatically shared with others.
Those you’re letting go and those you’re keeping will quickly know what their colleagues received in terms of severance, the continuance of healthcare benefits, early vesting, continued access to company channels, and more. Most likely, so will the rest of the world.
Choose (and explain) your channels of communication.
Companies have been criticized as insensitive for firing employees over video or email, but if you have a hybrid or remote workforce you may not have a lot of choices. The critical thing is to choose the channel that’s as right as it can be for your company, then to explain why you chose it and how you’re going to use it.
For example, “We decided to have a conference call so everyone hears the news at the same time and you all didn’t feel like you had to be on camera. Immediately after this conference call, managers will be calling those we are letting go and will call other team members this afternoon. Meanwhile, someone from HR will set up video chats with those being let go to review the details of your exit package.”
Don’t hide behind jargon.
The term “go forward” is today’s “right-sizing” and several companies have been (rightly) castigated for using it. Don’t use either term. Don’t use any jargon, in fact, and don’t even think about using the word “family.” Be sensitive to nuances that may strike the wrong tone — those you are laying off aren’t “leaving us” (which sounds voluntary), they are being let go. Also be sensitive to the way you use “inside” language: when you lay people off they are no longer “Andorians”, they immediately become “ex-Andorians” or “former Andorians.” While they may identify as “Andoria alumni,” that’s a term they should choose for themselves should they want to.
Don’t get emotional.
Let’s be honest: Every layoff is a business decision, and every layoff is harder on those who are laid off than on those who make the decision to lay them off. So don’t get emotional or make it about you. That’s why the crying CEO video landed so badly while Stripe’s recent communication was widely lauded.
Avoid projections or assurances of any kind. The fact that you’re having to lay off employees now is all the proof anyone needs that your crystal ball failed, so don’t make it worse by saying something you can’t possibly know to be true. “This action will provide us with a four-year runway,” could come back to haunt you, as can: “We believe this action will again position us for growth.” Stick to words that are true now and will be true even if things change.
Seeing employees treated badly during a layoff can damage your brand, discourage future recruits from applying and lower morale among those you’re trying to retain. The good news is that, while a layoff is never going to be fun, it’s not hard to do it well. The bottom line: Be as honest, clear and kind as you can.