When a major automaker announces they're trimming their global workforce by 20,000 people through layoffs, it can be seen as a purely economic decision.
However, for anyone who's experienced being laid off, there are real consequences beyond the economics. Companies can create a more compassionate experience surrounding what is, without a doubt, a completely uncomfortable situation. While according to a 2017 Gallup poll, American fears of being laid off are at an all-time low, the fear is out there. And very real.
To explore how companies can do better and do right by employees in the uncomfortable process of layoffs, I gathered thoughts from people who had been laid off. What employers did well, where they fell short and how companies could make a difficult decision a more human process for all involved.
Keep Communication Personal
By 2011, T.* had survived multiple rounds of layoffs at his employer during his 18-year tenure. His layoff notice came via a BCCd email, instructing notified employees to attend a conference call to learn about next steps.
“I get that a large-scale layoff from a large company requires a rip-the-Band-Aid-off tactic, but a mass email felt like a slap in the face," he says.
L.* was laid off in 2011 via phone while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery. "Other layoffs took place that day," she says, “but they made the effort to find out what hospital I was in to include me."
No matter how much it comes down to numbers, being laid off can be personal. Consider investing the time in a more personal form of communication than email. In-person and private is likely best. Phone calls are next. Emails, however, can make it look like you forgot that the recipient of the email is human with real worries and concerns.
Prioritize People Over Process
In 2002, N.* had an overall favorable experience throughout his layoff. He feels his employer did many things right, from letting at-risk employees know early in the process, offering job-sharing alternatives, hosting on-site recruiting events for the industry, and generous severance packages. What N. feels was missing, however, was the personalization in the process.
“It sometime felt like a process to be followed because it was policy, rather than real people with real fears."
While building a highly comprehensive policy and process for layoffs can be helpful, you can run the risk of forgetting about the people going through your process. Keep in mind that processes you create aren't one-size-fits-all and consider creating contingencies for working with individual employees, or even teams, that aren't best served by the company's master layoffs process.
Rethink Severance Calculations
When S.* was laid off in 2008, he was greeted directly by his managing director and given an open and honest explanation for the company's situation —and the layoff—behind closed doors.
“It was really a sign of respect given the news that was about to be delivered," he says.
While S. and his managing director remain friends to this day, S. was caught short by his two-week salary severance package.
“Even four weeks as opposed to two would have made a huge difference at that time," he says. “I was allocated a small exit bonus but it wasn't much."
Think about your own finances should you face a layoff. Would two weeks or four weeks of severance give you more peace of mind? This can help you remember that there are lives with expenses at the other end of your severance packages.
Consider ways you can help ease the transition for your team, both financially and emotionally. Perhaps it's more notice so they can job hunt while still employed. Maybe it's a larger severance package so that they can breathe while getting their ducks in a row.
Avoid Vilifying Laid-Off Team Members
When K.* was laid off in 2015, it seemed everyone knew before she did.
“All that week people on campus refused to take any calls related to my projects," she recalls. “I left messages, but couldn't make any progress on anything."
When she asked her boss if she were being laid off, he said he couldn't comment. But the kicker was when she was escorted off the property.
“I had already cleaned out my office—in full view of everyone—and called contacts on programs that I directed to let them know I would be gone."
When laying off employees, imagine how it feels when a worker—one being laid off as opposed to fired for cause—is escorted by security off your premises. There's no need to make anyone being laid off feel like a villain or criminal. Be kind. Give them time to say farewell to coworkers. Don't ghost them when they ask about their employment status. (This is business, not a junior high school date gone wrong.) Being laid off is emotionally charged enough as it is without needing to make anyone being laid off look like a threat or risk, or not worthy of an answer to their questions.
If your company finds itself facing the potential of layoffs, take the experiences of these five employees to heart. Remember that people go beyond your balance sheet and consider creating a flexible, people-centric process for communicating the company's needs and giving your laid-off workforce a soft place to land. It's always about more than money.
*Names have been abbreviated to the first initial of the generous respondents who shared their layoff stories in order to respect their privacy.
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