How to have smoother layoff conversations

Each employee may react differently, depending on their state of mind and need for the job. Here's how to pick up on subtle cues and channel the conversation positively

Bhavna Dalal
Updated: Jun 30, 2020 05:18:12 PM UTC

Bhavna Dalal [[](] is the Founder and CEO of Talent Power Partners a Leadership Development company based in Bangalore, India. She is an Executive Master Coach [ICF MCC Certified] with an MBA from IIM Calcutta and has a B.E. in Electronics. She has authored the books Checkmate Office Politics and Team Decision Making endorsed by the likes of Marshal Goldsmith and Dr. Jadgish Seth among many other business leaders. Bhavna has been serving on several compliance commitees and is the Vice President on the Board of Directors of Bodhi Education Society (A not-for-profit that supports schools in rural Andhra Pradesh).

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Most certainly, managers around the world would agree that laying off employees is a part of their role they dislike the most. Layoffs are difficult and emotional times. We all dread having this burdensome and awkward conversation. An essential thing to note is that emotions are high both for the manager and the employee. It is vital to recognise this to navigate through this emotionally ripe situation with calmness and compassion. However, there is no need to play a psychologist to the employee. Here are a few things a manager must consider before going into layoff conversations.

Preparing yourself
Your handling of this situation has far-reaching implications, much beyond the employee you are speaking with. The team that gets left behind will view this action of yours too. It will indicate who you are as a leader. The best thing you can do is go in with a plan, but don’t be impersonal. The skill lies in knowing when to follow the script and when not to.

It is essential to first check-in with yourself and take stock of your own emotions. The emotions that may surface for you as you prepare to have the talk may range from sympathy, pity, indifference to even a ‘serves them right’ attitude. You cannot be useful if you first don’t recognise your emotions and process them. It will enable you to have a ‘thought through’ approach and feel better prepared.

Transparency helps. Often, the extent of transparency depends on senior management. Do ask for as much relevant data you need to show up confidently.

Listening patiently during the conversation is another simple skill that can come in handy at these times. Ensure a listening frame of mind before the meeting. Empathy may be more helpful than sympathy.

Reach out for training; several companies offer training in preparing people for this arduous task. Could you make use of it? Even if you have done this before on several occasions, maybe there is something new you can learn. It is a common practice to go in with a human resource professional for this task.

During the conversation
Every conversation will be different. Some people may be quite calm and not particularly unhappy during the meeting. There could be many reasons for that, such as a generous severance package; maybe they were considering going back to school or looking to change their job anyway. While others will be distraught and devastated during the interaction. Use your experience and expertise to handle it in the moment.

Because layoff decisions are uncomfortable, managers tend to shift the blame away from themselves to the company or senior management. Be conscious of this fact and stay away from blaming. This may be a good time and place to follow the script and sticking to the business facts of the reduction in force. Clearly explain why the company and its leadership team had to make the difficult decision to let their employees go. Blaming others creates more confusion for the employee, and they may perceive you as powerless or not fully vested in them, hence defeating your purpose for blaming. It can create other legal and compliance problems for you too.

Layoff conversations must have nothing to do with performance. It is quite a natural tendency for the employee to be laid off to make sense of the decision. The foremost question in their mind is bound to be, why me? What did I do or not do? Keep the conversation focused on the state of the organisation and not about personal issues. Bringing up previous unaddressed performance issues will only make the situation worse. It takes away from the clear message to the employee to move on to their next role. You want them to have the clarity of thought to take in the severance and assistance information you will be providing.

Offer to help but do not over-promise
Most managers laying off their people have a deep desire to help their employees get back on their feet quickly. The bonafide intention to assist in itself is powerful. Communicate that authentically. To supplement it, some other things you can do are:
• offer to write a LinkedIn recommendation
• introduce them to your contacts or
• agree to be their reference contact for future roles.

In difficult times, the one thing that can genuinely help your team member is feeling supported, feeling like they matter to people they have worked with. However, do not go overboard. Ensure that you don’t say things like you will re-hire them when things get better. It can create a sense of false hope and may keep them back from trying their best for their next opportunity.

You can communicate that a layoff is not necessarily a reflection on their personal qualities. After all, bad things do happen to good people, and the lessons may be revealed later.

Primarily, focus on providing employees with a customised roadmap and as much transition support as possible while keeping the broader impact on everyone concerned. A layoff conversation experience is a milestone most seasoned leaders have had to cross at some point in their careers. There is no point in being scared and running away from it. Even after all the preparation, things may still not go very well. Be kind to yourself. It is not an easy skill to master. The experience will teach you more than anything else can.

The writer is founder and CEO of Talent Power Partners, a Leadership Development company based in Bangalore, India

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