May 1st, 2010

Delivering a layoff message — ugh!

I’m used to helping managers deliver tough messages.

“Your performance is not up to par.”
“We received a customer complaint about your work.”
“You were late today.”

These conversations sometimes cause us to pause, but we press forward because if we don’t, the team, the organization, and our customers will suffer.

Lately I’ve been working with managers on delivering a new kind of message-a message none of us wants to deliver:

“You are being laid off.”

The difference with a layoff conversation is that it may not always be due to the employee’s performance. The individual might be a great employee and the organization just can’t sustain the work at this point. Managers who have to deliver these messages are struggling. Here are a few tips for delivering the layoff message with respect, compassion, and kindness:

Prepare for your own emotions. Allow yourself to be angry, sad, or resentful. Then let it go. The more emotional you are in the layoff meeting, the more likely you are to say something that is not helpful or productive to the employee.

Take ownership of the decision. No one will be happy about a layoff but blaming the decision on a higher authority doesn’t help. “This wasn’t my idea” or “Corporate says we have to do this,” doesn’t add to your credibility and does nothing for the employee who is struggling with the loss.

Don’t confuse the employee with your personal opinions. You might want to tell the employee what you really think of this situation. You might want to pad the conversation with your ideas about how the layoff could have been avoided. Resist that temptation. Once the decision to separate the employee has been made, you will not be helping anyone by sharing your perspectives. Stick to the facts.

Consider the logistics of the meeting. If you are notifying several employees in one work group that they are being laid off and if the layoff is based on seniority, sequence the meetings in order of least to most senior. Conduct the meetings in a private place so that employees can express their thoughts without others eavesdropping. Determine who should be in the meetings and what role each attendee will play (managers, executives, human resources, etc.)

Use a script and stick to it. When you are telling an employee that they are being laid off, it’s important that the message be consistent and clear. Ask your HR department for a script to follow and then deliver the message as authentically as possible, while sticking to the facts.

Have tissues and water available. This will be an emotional conversation for the employee and probably for you. Be prepared for a range of emotions and let them happen.

Listen carefully to the employee’s response and show compassion. The reaction you witness in a layoff notification meeting may range from shock and denial to relief. For a full exploration of these reactions, check out the Deems Job Loss Reaction Cycleâ„¢ in the new book, Making Job Loss Work for You, by Richard and Terri Deems.

Keep the meeting brief. When you are delivering the initial layoff message, limit the meeting to 10 or 15 minutes. This is not the place for strategizing about the employee’s career plans or for solving the organization’s problems. Save the analysis of the past and planning for the future for another time.

This will never be easy. With a little forethought, however, you can carry out this process with respect, compassion, and kindness.

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