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Leaders, Layoffs Are Not About You

CEO Braden Wallake posted about his grief and anguish after laying three people off. It became a viral post to empathize with or mock. Here’s the problem. He made the layoffs all about him. Layoffs are not about the leader. They never are.

Is it hard for a leader to do layoffs? Yes, or at least I hope it is.

Does anyone care how hard it is on the leader? Nope, nor should they.

Layoffs will happen. And hopefully, they are the last resort for course correction due to market downturns, overstaffing, and other business issues. Nevertheless, they will happen. We are in a season of layoffs in corporate America right now. I’ve done my share of them over the years. Some were my decision, and others I just had input on the decision.

Having led layoffs over the years, I learned a few things.

  1. There is no great way to announce a layoff. No one will applaud you for how well you did it.
  2. It’s not about you. It’s about the people whose lives you are impacting in significant and negative ways.
  3. Have the courage of your convictions. If you decide to lay people off, make damn sure you have the courage to announce it yourself, don’t delegate it.

And while there is no perfect way to announce a layoff, there are ways to do it with empathy, consistency, and consideration. If you’re making some tough decisions about layoffs, here are three tips for moving forward.

Act Quickly

Layoffs are a difficult decision that no one wants to make. It’s admitting failure in the organization and dramatically impacting people’s lives. You may feel drawn to take your time to make the decision and even longer to create the list of who will be affected.

And that’s a mistake. In these situations, you want to move with speed and intention.

First (and selfishly), it’s an onerous burden for the leader. You don’t want to drag this out. Second, it’s a hard secret to keep. You will need to pull some people in early to make the decision, run the numbers, etc. And people talk, documents accidentally sit on the printer, and word begins to leak out.

Once the decision is made, make taking action a priority. Get the information you need and make the announcement. You can always pull back if you need to.

Get to the Point

The hardest part of this for the leader is making the announcement. I will give Braden Wallake credit for showing how very hard it is. But again, no one cares how this impacts the leader who gets to stick around and get paid.

But I’ve seen leaders pull the team together and launch into a long song and dance to explain how the company ended up at this tough decision. NOBODY CARES. The team knows what’s coming when the call or meeting gets scheduled. All they care about at that point is when my job goes away and what package, if any, will you provide me as I make my way out the door?

The first time I had to do a layoff, I worked forever on a script for the announcement. I wanted to show my empathy, to let them see how much I cared and how difficult the decision was. On the announcement day, I walked in at 8:00 am for the meeting to announce the layoff. I wasn’t three feet in the door before a woman approached me in tears wanting to know if she was losing her job that day (she was). And once I got everyone together, all they wanted to know was when it took effect and what they might get.

Your planning doesn’t mean much. When you make the announcement, you focus on brevity and speed. Announce the layoff, “we’ve made the difficult decision to close this office, layoff this team, etc. Your last day will be Friday. Here is Bob from HR, who will explain what happens next.”

This is not the time to talk about customer transitions, packing their desks, whatever. Know that as soon as the word “layoff” leaves your lips, they care about one thing: “what does this mean for me.” Let HR walk them through the details. And you sit through it (don’t be the coward who walks out of the room). Once HR is done, tell everyone they can go home for the day and that you will walk through the business issues tomorrow.

This may seem like it lacks empathy, but it is the ultimate empathy. Be quick and to the point, answer any questions, and then let them begin the process of grieving.

Do Not Drag It Out

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when laying off a team is to announce it and then tell them you’d like to stay until the end of a project three months from now. You may say to yourself you’re doing the right thing and giving them more time to get paid and make arrangements for their next step.

What you’re doing is making your life easier. If that project is crucial to the business, why are you laying them off in the first place? You’re just communicating that you don’t care about them as people, only as cogs in a wheel.

And you’re creating a vast army of the Walking Dead in your office. The people who didn’t get laid off feel survivor’s guilt. You’re slowing down the laid-off team members’ ability to start their job-seeking process. And the whole time, you can’t even look them in the eye.

Once you have made the decision, do it. Give them a week, no more than two, to get things wrapped up and let them go on their way.

Layoffs are a terrible and challenging part of the corporate lifecycle. There is no good way to get through the process. No one will congratulate you on how well you navigated it. All you can do is be quick, be fair, and know that is the closest you will get to an empathetic process.

If you’re struggling to make the difficult decisions now that could lead to a layoff in the future, let’s connect. Learning to deal with small problems early can reduce the need to make far more difficult decisions later.