How to Approach Layoff Conversations

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Layoffs are never easy, whether they’re borne from poor performance, a restructuring, a market downturn, or a current health pandemic. No one arrives at the decision easily, but that process is not what this piece is about. Most companies provide corporate talking points and paperwork…and that’s it. We’re here to offer some coaching advice for the difficult conversation itself.

(Disclaimer: This guidance assumes you have aligned with HR and your in-house counsel on the legal implications of this decision and the subsequent conversations.  We are also not providing legal advice.)

Rest up.
There’s quite a bit to think through, but our first piece of advice is actually about YOU. Get a good night’s sleep the night before so you can be rested and alert when you need to be. Get up early and take a walk, meditate or just spend some quiet, introspective time by yourself before heading into the office. These will be heavy, difficult, and emotionally draining discussions, so going in with a clear head will really help.

Script what you want to say.
It’s always a good idea to write out a script. Yes, you’ll have talking points from HR, but injecting some of your words and personality will make this a much more genuine experience. Know how you’re going to begin the conversation, the main points you want to make and then how you’re going to conclude the conversation (obtain laptop or passes, final administrative items, offer to be a reference).  Prepare for common questions about severance or COBRA insurance, but you also may be hit with “why me?” or “who else is getting laid off?”. There will be some questions you can’t answer directly and it will really help to have a scripted response ready.

These conversations can be emotional and intense. It may sound odd, but insert several strategic pauses as you go. Your employee will be processing a lot of information and these pauses can help them stay calm and collected. Don’t think of them as awkward silences you try to fill with off-hand comments or placating sentiments. Give your employee some space. Stick to the script.

Communicate with compassion.
Be considerate and empathetic, but do not get emotional. You are the boss and you must maintain your composure. Remember, this is not about you, it’s about them. Sit down, thank them for their time and move quickly into the reason for the meeting. Don’t beat around the bush or ask about their kids. No amount of small talk will lessen the blow and it may actually increase the tension in the room.

If you have control over the time and place of the conversation, make the compassionate choice here as well. Choose a conference room near the elevator so your employee can quickly duck out if they need to. Wait until after their presentation or doctor’s appointment, if you can. You’re trying to allow this person to maintain as much dignity as possible and these choices can make a big impact.

Listen and react.
One of the best ways to respect your employee is to LISTEN to them. Pay attention to and follow their cues. They may not be ready to hear about the placement services you’re offering or the available reference and that’s okay. Let them know you’ll be sending all the information they need and that you’re there to answer any questions. Be sure they have contact information for HR and send them home for the rest of the afternoon.

Follow everything up in writing.
Chances are you’re communicating a lot of information and they may not be listening as intently as they will have hoped.  Following up every conversation with a written summary and include supporting documentation to ensure everyone is on the same page and nothing is forgotten. You’ll also be able to protect yourself from potential issues or misunderstandings.

An employee’s final days at a company can influence how they’ll remember their entire years of service. You’ll be playing a big part in the end of this chapter for them. Help them through the transition with respect, empathy, and sincerity – you’ll all be better for it. Also, once you’re done, take some time for yourself, this is not easy and not something most will enjoy or want to repeat.

E78 Partners offers consultative staffing and executive search services that are specialized in management and executive level accounting and finance talent.  We boost the capabilities and capacity of your accounting and finance department, offering a unique ability to provide an integrated and comprehensive suite of services.

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