How To Perform a Layoff Without Losing Your Mind

by Linda Harding Bond

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, the damage to the job market looks likely to be deep and long-lasting. Managers are not only dealing with the stress and sadness of having to let go of a large number of their workers, many of them are also feeling underlying anxiety about their own positions.

Even if laying off employees is the only way to keep the organization running, how do you handle your feelings of guilt and sadness? How should you deliver the news when you can’t meet face-to-face? What should you say to your employees who remain? And what can you do to manage fear about your own future?

What the Experts Say

Laying off employees is difficult in normal times; but amidst the Covid-19 global health crisis, the task is “emotionally and cognitively overwhelming.” according to Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business Schoool. “This experience for most of us is unfathomable,” he says. As a manager charged with dismissing a wide swath of employees, “you’re pulled in different directions: Your heart goes out to people, but you have a responsibility to the organization.”

That tension is magnified when you’re also worried about your own fate. “You’re human and you’re going to have a lot of those 2 AM moments,” he says. “In your role as a manager, you need to be there for your people.” Here are some recommendations.

Leaders: Reflect on whether layoffs are needed

If you’re the one making the decisions about layoffs, ask yourself one question: is downsizing your workforce truly necessary?

The impulse to cut costs is understandable, but this is not a periodic recession. Rather, this pandemic represents an exceptionally historic moment that will end up being pivotal for the economy and for people’s communities, careers, and lives, and it might warrant a different response.

Explore other ways to generate revenue. Would additional training support your team and allow them to increase earnings immediately? Sometime a small investment can yield great returns

Laying off people should be the last resort.

Gather information

If you decide layoffs are necessary or others have made that decision for you, then make sure you’re prepared before you reach out to the affected employees. Figure out how and when you will deliver the news to your employees on an individual basis and what the message will consist of.

Reach out to HR, your legal department, and any other senior leaders who might be able to help you prepare answers to questions such as “When will I get my last paycheck?”

Set the right tone

Because you will probably deliver the message remotely, you must take extra care to break the news “with empathy and compassion.” Even though you may worry that you, too, might get laid-off, this particular termination is not about you.


Ideally, you will have the conversation via video link so that you can “make eye contact” with the other person. If the conversation takes place on the phone, free yourself of all distractions. Be fully present and listen.

Be direct and human

Your message should be clear, concise, and unequivocal. For instance, I’m sorry, but at end of next week we are terminating your job. Imparting an expeditious, direct message can feel cold, but it allows the other person to process what you’re saying.

Express gratitude for their hard work and dedication. Then offer a short and simple explanation about the economic conditions that led to the layoff. Stress that this is not about specific job performance. This is not the employee’s fault. This is about a global circumstance that none of us created.

Acknowledge, too, that one of the difficult things about being laid off during this crisis is that coworkers won’t get a chance to say goodbye in person.

Offer assistance — but don’t overpromise

Be helpful. Provide information on where your employee should go for government benefits. Offer ideas about job opportunities at other organizations. Offer to serve as a reference. But, don’t overcommit to things you can’t deliver.

For instance, you may feel tempted to say, ‘As things get clearer, and the economy improves, you’re on our list to come back,”. But no one has that kind of foresight. Don’t sugarcoat and don’t give false hope.

Focus on your wellbeing

Finally, take care of yourself. Hopefully, this is the only time you face something of this magnitude.  The best coping mechanism for when you can’t anticipate what’s in store for you is self-care. Eat healthy, wholesome food; get regular exercise; try meditating; get plenty of sleep at night; read a good book.

A little perspective helps too. Remember, you are not alone. Unfortunately, there are a lot of managers going through this.

Linda Harding Bond is a member of the APSWC.

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