Tools to make an extremely difficult situation a bit easier.
These are the conversations that no one wants to have. By their very nature, these conversations are never easy. However, this guide is intended to simplify the complexity of these conversations, and hopefully give you the tools to make an extremely difficult situation just a little bit more brain friendly on both ends.
This is a time to be as human as possible -- the more human you can make these meetings, the better off you’ll be. Allow yourself to be vulnerable by taking off your poker face and speaking humanely, and allow the employee you’re laying off to do the same.
Who should have these conversations?
Your manager-to-direct report relationship is continuously developing and improving over the course of employment. While furlough and layoff news is extremely difficult to hear, you delivering it is crucial because of your close relationship to the employee.
Additionally, while you were probably tapped into conversations with leadership as an FYI or for general input, you were most likely not the one making the layoff decision overall. It can be helpful for the employee to know you’re just the messenger so they can feel comfortable being candid in the conversation and remove personalization. The trust that your direct has in you is what is going to make this news 10% easier for them to digest.
Having the accompaniment of an HR representative is indeed welcome so that certain questions and information can be stated accurately.
Best practices for 1:1 communication
Schedule your 1:1 meeting privately.
Some companies have the information they need for weeks or months to know that they’ll need to do layoffs, while others know just days before. In either case, do not schedule a date for when folks will hear whether they are being terminated or not. This causes intense anxiety and anticipation for the employees, and will almost certainly make that time period useless for performance and productivity.
Be very clear.
The person being laid off needs to know that there is no room for negotiation here. Comments like, “may be eliminated; or, will have to be eliminated,” sound ambiguous, which is not what the employee needs.
Being clear and concise allows the employee to process the information they’re receiving in a realistic way. While this is not the news that they want to hear, they will at the very least feel more certain of what is going on and what to do next.
Assess & acknowledge the employee’s reaction.
With news like this, the employee will most likely need a bit of time to digest. Explicitly acknowledge this by allowing some time for the employee to absorb the information before proceeding. For example, “I know you need time to absorb this information.” Or, “I understand you are upset.”
If the employee is too upset to proceed, set up another time for later the same day. You may also suggest that the impacted employee go home if they indicate that they are not able to continue working, and schedule another time the following day.
Pro-Tip: Don’t be afraid of an “awkward silence.” A discreet pause is welcomed in this case so the employee can take the time they need to let it sink in.
Share only budgeting reasons.
When an employee is being let go, the most common question they ask themselves is, “Why me?” When providing the explanation to a layoff or furlough, relate it only to budgetary shortages, not due to the employee’s performance, personality, or any other personal factor. Also consider what they’re going to see when they look around them. Was this really a last resort? Did the organization take sacrifices? Did the leaders?
Getting laid off is devastating. At the very least the employee wants to be able to walk away from the conversation saying “This is not a sign that I am not good enough.” This can have a massive impact on whether they’re able to get back on their feet again and feel confident that they’ll continue to do well in their next endeavor.
Decide how much input to allow.
It's tempting to want to control every aspect of the exit journey, but consider giving autonomy to the employee. If possible, let them decide how they'd like the rest of the team to hear the news.
Senior leaders often fall into the trap of saving-organizational-face, instead of giving employees the opportunity to leave with their heads held high. Great leaders are able to tolerate the temporary negative reputation hit to the organizational brand in service of honoring the laid off employee's dignity and humanity.
If you deliver the news effectively, the employee, hopefully, will articulate it in a way that saves face for themselves and the company.
Schedule a follow up.
Since the initial meeting will most likely be very emotionally-charged, logistical elements are not going to be easy for the employee or you to handle. We recommend scheduling a follow up meeting to formally discuss the work transition plan, get any required forms signed, complete all the items on the Exit Checklist, and discuss how to handle the employee’s need to have release time to interview for other jobs. Make contact with the employee periodically during the notice period to assess how they are responding emotionally and answer any questions that arise.
Things to remember
Focus on them.
However difficult this meeting may be for you, it is tougher for the employee. Do not get onto the topic of your needs, feelings, or problems. For example, avoid “I do not want to do this, but…” since it comes too close to dealing with your feelings rather than the employee’s. Also lean away from “I know how you feel.” Each person feels things differently and has a right to do so. The best thing you can do is acknowledge the person’s feelings, and make them feel heard and validated in their reaction by offering your support and listening with intent.
Keep a level-headed attitude.
Do not be defensive or feel you must persuade the person that the action is justified. Just state your case with confidence. This is not the time for a performance appraisal or grievances from the past.
Represent the organization well.
Refrain from criticizing or placing blame on the organizational leadership. Stick to the facts.
Be prepared to repeat.
Remember that it is normal to have to repeat information for the employee during this type of meeting. When someone hears news that affects so many different areas of their life and themselves, they are under extreme cognitive load. This means the brain requires extra effort to put this information into working memory, which is why repeating the details and clarifying confusion will most likely be necessary.
These conversations are never going to be easy, but hopefully this guide will act as a tool you can use when you feel scared and uncertain of how to go about a conversation like this. Stay strong for your direct report, and empower them to continue to make an impact above and beyond the organization they’re leaving.