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11 Ways to Conduct More Empathetic, Respectful Layoffs

There’s no way around it: layoffs suck.

But just because a decision is hard to make - painful, even - doesn’t mean that its execution can’t maximize opportunities for empathy, respect, equity, and humanity.


A closeup on two pairs of hands as a coworker shows support and empathy for a team member who has been laid off.

If you’re either considering or getting ready to implement layoffs at your organization, we’ve put together eleven actionable recommendations below.

Sourced from best practices, evolving schools of thought on People Ops, and folks who’ve been there before, these practical considerations will help ensure you plan a layoff that’s tightly coordinated, seamlessly executed, and intentionally designed to protect your company’s reputation, conscious, business, and talent. Most importantly, they’ll help you design a layoff process that respects the experience of those most directly affected - those who're being let go.

I’m truly sorry you’re in this position, but if you’re here, I already know you care. You can - and will - find a way to take care of your team through this. As you do, make sure to take care of your wellbeing too. ❤️ OK, let’s get started. You can read through all eleven recommendations or use the below list to navigate to the topics you're most interested in.



1. For Leadership

Be ethical in your approach to making the layoff decision.


A layoff is something of a defcon 2 level decision; no matter how well executed, it will entail significant fallout. Before embracing the decision to reduce your workforce, it’s important to understand it from every angle. Thoroughly assess whether a layoff is indeed the right decision for your desired outcomes, or if other innovative solutions would support your business, long term strategy, organizational structure, and culture equally well.


If you’re all in on a layoff, ensure that you’re asking the right questions to keep generosity, equity, appropriate transparency, accountability, and excellent planning and execution at the forefront. Future Work Design’s excellent guide to ethical layoffs walks you through the right questions to ask at each stage in your planning, questions like:


  • What assumptions have we not yet challenged about how our organization runs?

  • Is our goal to maintain our current culture, or to evolve it?

  • How do we establish - and measure for - the desired outcomes of this decision?

  • Have we assessed what demographics may be unfairly impacted by this decision?

  • Have we been creative about how we might leverage talent and skill sets in other roles or departments?

  • Are we in lockstep in how we’ll deliver tough news?


Want to dig deeper? Definitely check out Future Work Design’s “A Leader’s Guide

For Ethical Layoffs,” which helped inform this section! It’s a phenomenal resource if you’re considering layoffs. Regardless of which stage you’re at, it will help you center equity and care through even the trickiest calls.



2. For People Ops and Leadership

Advocate for generous severance and additional supporting benefits for those impacted.


I know I don’t have to say this, but I will anyway: layoffs are devastating. A myriad of studies show that financial, career, and even physical and mental health outcomes for employees experiencing layoffs can deteriorate for up to two years following the event, depending on factors like income level, time to rehire, field or industry, and location.

When reducing your workforce, care for departing employees is paramount. Remember that even the most connected leaders don’t know what personal circumstances an impacted employee is facing or preparing to face. At the barest minimum, double and triple check that you’ve accounted for national and regional minimum severance requirements, from communication notice to benefits coverage to separation pay.

Companies who’ve been lauded for their treatment of departing employees have issued severance packages including several months’ salary and benefit coverage, access to career counseling or outplacement services, continued access to mental health benefits, cash equivalent payment of certain unused perks, and even speed-vesting of shares in company equity they received at hire.



3. For People Ops

Think carefully about how you'll disseminate the news - specifically the timing of events.


Big news travels fast. Plan with the assumption that immediately after the first layoff conversation ends, that employee will inform others, who will then contact additional teammates, and so on and so forth. This game of telephone will only increase anxiety and uncertainty, so make a plan that accounts for it. Time is of the essence here or you risk a sloppy roll out.


Will you hold conversations 1:1 and then let the whole team know? Will you inform everyone in an all company meeting, adding that those impacted will receive additional communications immediately after? Will you inform impacted teams in department-wide meetings before or after other departments? Given there are many ways to approach this cadence; here are some questions to consider before making a decision:


  • How many people are being laid off? What percent of the workforce does it represent?

  • How many conversations can you manage simultaneously, and how quickly can you complete your full suite of communications?

  • What advanced notice, time, and personnel resources does IT need to offboard access to communication, internal files, account logins, platform access, email and Slack channels, etc?

  • What causes the least anxiety for the greatest number of people?

  • Don’t forget how you’ll communicate! How will you address in-office vs. virtual attendance to any crucial conversations?

  • How are you prepared to account for folks on leave or vacations, or teammates who aren’t in attendance that day for sick or personal days?



4. For People Ops and Leadership

Decide who will deliver the news to impacted individuals.


There are a few schools of thought here, but it’s wise to ensure someone from People Ops/HR is present for this conversation. They may not deliver the news directly, but it’s prudent to have a well-informed subject matter expert on hand to address sensitive questions that may come up. Beyond that, deciding who will deliver the tough news comes down to the dynamics of your team, decisions on who’s been informed ahead of time, and accountability for the layoff decision itself. Here are some points to consider:


  • Who was responsible for making the layoff decisions? Were managers involved? Is the direct manager themself being let go, and if so, when? These answers can inform whether it’s appropriate for an employee’s direct manager to deliver the news, or if it’s better delivered by a skip-level manager, department lead, or senior company leader.

  • Are conversations happening in-person or remotely? Given timezone considerations and geographic spread, who are the best people to participate?

  • How senior are those you’re considering? Do they have experience with leading these types of conversations previously?

  • How many conversations need to be had? Can a few people manage all of them in a reasonable amount of time (more on that below), or do we need to bring more people in to accomplish this?

  • Who can you trust will be discreet with this information? Do you feel confident that they will refrain from leak anything to the team pre-conversation?


There’s is also secondary item to consider here: whether any teammates not delivering the news should be informed ahead of a wider announcement. For instance, you may choose to inform a specific manager they’re about to lose their downline, or absorb another team. If a department’s priorities will immediately shift based on layoffs impacting another team, you might inform a select few of that department’s leadership so they can strategize and align. Be very choosy here; it’s crucial to ensure that those you inform have proven they can handle sensitive information with discretion and maturity.



5. For People Ops

Prepare communication scripts (including responses to common reactions or questions) for those conducting layoff conversations.


These are always hard conversations, so make sure those delivering the tough news have the resources they need to be accurate, empathetic, brief, and unified in their delivery. Creating scripts aligns everyone on talking points and provides guidance on how to best respond to a variety of reactions or questions.


Thinking through the trickiest, most heat-of-the-moment potential questions also shows that you’ve considered the human impact of this decision on the individual. Here are some questions to ensure every person delivering the news should be able to address with unified messaging:

  • Why is my position being eliminated?

  • Why am I specifically being let go?

  • I’m a top performer; why am I being punished for it?

  • How did you decide who’s being eliminated? Who was part of the decision?

  • Who else is being laid off on our team - is it just me?

  • Who’s going to do all my work/handle my accounts/manage all my projects?

  • Will I be receiving a severance package?

  • When are my benefits ending?

  • I’m on parental leave/supporting my ailing parent/in the middle of a disability accommodations request/etc.; how could you do this to me now?

  • Will the company support me when I apply for unemployment benefits?

  • How long will I have access to my email and company accounts?

  • Can I reach out to my team and say goodbye?



6. For People Ops

Provide talking points for managers to use when connecting with remaining team members.


Just as you’d provide a script for delivering layoff decisions, prepare and provide guidance for managers to guide conversations with remaining teammates. This should clearly address what can and cannot be said in response to certain questions, up to and including letting teammates know where to go with requests for information a manager can’t (or shouldn’t) provide.

Remaining teammates are likely to have some questions! You want your managers to feel confident in their responses. We recommend providing guidance on the following questions:


  • Are we next? How do we know our jobs are safe?

  • We worked so closely with [impacted individual or team] - what does this mean for the work we do?

  • Who’s going to take on [departing teammate]’s work?

  • If our workloads are increasing, how are our performance expectations changing?

  • What kind of information can we count on you for?

  • Did you know about this? Why didn’t you warn us?

  • Were you part of this decision? Did you decide who would be impacted?


Just as you designed the cascade of information about layoffs (see point 4), create a timeline for managers of what communications they should share with their team, when, and in what forum.


🚨Resource alert!🚨 Finding appropriate language for some of these questions is tricky! We created a conversation template for navigating layoff anxiety as a people manager that is a great place to start.



7. For Executive Leadership, People Ops, and the CEO:

Draft thoughtful internal and external communication for delivery by the CEO.


The company at large needs a message from their top leadership; after all, the CEO certainly signed off on - likely even spearheaded - the decision to reduce staff. Folks deserve to know why.

But there’s a second critical audience to consider when communicating a layoff: the general public. Shareholders, job-seekers, investors, customers, and other stakeholders are always watching and listening, and your reputation with them hinges on how you handle this publicly. In the last few years, we’ve seen plenty of examples of poor CEO communication when it comes to company layoffs.

It’s important to strike a balance between appropriate transparency, thoughtful reflection, accountability, empathy, and optimism for the future following the pain of the layoff. When crafting communications to either audience, we strongly recommend you consider the following:


  1. Why did the reduction in force happen? Explain what decisions led to this and what - if any - steps were taken to mitigate it.

  2. Who was impacted and why? Give context if certain teams experienced outsized cuts.

  3. Internally be sure to address how workloads, operations, and organizational structure(s) will change. And don't forget to touch on what (if any) cultural shifts you'll be making to support these changes.

  4. Take accountability. Yes, there were business, financial, and macroeconomic factors at play. Yes, other leaders likely advocated just as fervently for the RIF. But this is the time for a CEO to lean - however uncomfortably - into the role of ultimate responsible party for company decisions. Shirking responsibility onto stakeholders, board members, other leaders, external factors, or individual performance is not going to earn you any goodwill with those remaining at your company.

  5. Show emotion - but don't expect others to feel bad for you. I will never discount how painful this decision is for a CEO; it’s fair and valid for an empathetic leader to feel awful about this. Acknowledge the pain of this decision, and that you feel sadness for losing colleagues, for damaging trust, even for letting folks down. That said, this is not the time to play your own violin. There are colleagues whose day-to-day security will be immediately, irreparably harmed by this decision. In most cases, the CEO is not one of them. You are absolutely entitled to your sadness, but this is not an appropriate time to solicit sympathy from those reporting to you.


The goal here is not to draft something that feels good to read or hear, but to be clear, accountable, respectful, appropriately empathetic, and steady. In the last few years, we’ve seen a few examples that we think rose above the rest in their clarity, empathy, and respect for the audience:




8. For People Ops

Proactively compile a database of impacted employees, which can be shared following the layoff.


We’ve all seen CEOs of small companies take to LinkedIn, singing the praises of teammates impacted by a layoff. The intention here is good (to use one’s influence to connect talent to new work, lessening the negative impact of a layoff), but the execution is murky, relying on relationship-building, positive personal bias, and the inequitable world of networking itself to provide support. Instead, consider a database that equally elevates all departing employees, and can be easily shared by anyone looking to support them.


Here are some best practices to consider:


  • As part of exit communications, allow departing teammates to opt in or out of being on a public directory. Here is a great example of a layoff database that was created by Toast to help their impacted employees find new roles quicker. Provide instructions on how to request inclusion on the list at any time following separation. At bare minimum list their role at departure, high level responsibilities, and LinkedIn profile.

  • Encourage sharing and make it easy! Recruiters building pipelines, talent scouts at portfolio companies, agencies, hiring managers, and anyone else looking to scour for great talent should be a click away. Host information publicly, submit it to aggregate sites like Layoff.FYI and consider including it in press releases or statements regarding the layoff.

  • In designing this resource, ensure that all departing teammates can access equal benefit. For example, don’t offer to include manager recommendations unless managers are prepared to fulfill all recommendation requests within a given timeframe. Same goes for CEO endorsements if you’re a smaller team.

  • Get creative! Once you’ve accounted for the point above, consider even more elements. You can offer recommendations from coworkers, the choice to include a short bio, data points like a candidate’s location or remote/hybrid availability, the option to link to a professional portfolio, and so much more.



9. For People Ops

Offer a post-layoff follow-up call and support.


Snag a tip from Jane Long, who shared helpful insights from a recently conducted layoff. “I actually got great feedback,” she shared, “that our post-announcement follow-up support was incredibly impactful.”

Along with the traditional information (benefits, severance info, etc) sent post-conversation to the employees personal email, it “included a link to schedule time the following week for a 1:1 during which I’d be available to answer questions, talk about their next steps, set them up in an alumni slack channel where they could communicate with me and with each other. We also set up outplacement support for them. Finally, I dug into any way we could have [approached the layoff differently], and what additional support we could give.”



10. For Leadership and People Managers

Watch how you communicate company health (explicitly and implicitly) from here on out.


Even the most well-executed layoff can’t mitigate the anxiety, uncertainty, and damaged trust that will linger in those remaining. Providing regular company health updates in recurring communications programming is a great way to build back some of what’s been damaged. Explicit ways to facilitate this include opening up access to company financials as appropriate, sharing regular department-level updates, and including more regular all-hands segments.


Equally as important as what you explicitly communicate, though, is considering what you implicitly signal about company health in casual communications and decisions. For instance, last minute meeting invites with vague titles are likely to spur fear and spark rumors for employees who just witnessed a round of layoffs. Or instituting layoffs to protect financial health, only to follow up with an expensive swag gift or announcement of a swanky off-site, is likely to send confusing signals about the state of the company.



11. For Leadership and People Managers

Support your remaining team in setting and maintaining strong boundaries.


If you’ve planned your layoff ethically, and created clear layoff communications, your team should know what to expect regarding redistributed work that was managed by departing teammates. It’s too easy to point to that communication as clarification of any questions around workload expectations. Instead, bear in mind what colleagues experience in the immediate aftermath of a layoff: increased anxiety, diminished trust, and the fear that now their job may be next on the chopping block.


With an ethical layoff, you’ve ensured that teammates haven’t ended up with triple the workload. But without deft people management, remaining teammates will still feel pressure to take on extra work. It’s up to skilled leaders and managers to reiterate, over-communicate, and model what’s expected of teammates, while helping to support healthy work boundaries. From reiterating company mental health or wellness benefits, to taking a judicious eye to bloated meeting calendars, to even more openly modeling your own work-life boundaries, this is the time to protect your team’s holistic balance.


 

Have another tip for conducting a layoff with empathy and respect? Please share it in the comments below, so we can all learn together!


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