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Leading Difficult Conversations About Layoffs

A group of businessmen sitting at a table in a meeting.

​Massive staffing cuts by U.S.-based tech and finance companies have made the news recently. But while large-scale layoffs generate many headlines, small to midsize organizations also face downsizing decisions. 

"Laying someone off is one of the hardest things to do but is often necessary to improve operational efficiencies and, as a result, create more runway for a company," said Serena Ziskroit, fractional chief people officer at Mighty One Holding LLC. In a previous role, she led a 25 percent workforce reduction.

HR often has to let workers know they've been let go, and it's not a discussion anyone looks forward to. Few people like the prospect of difficult conversations. Most employees (70 percent) skip challenging discussions in the workplace, according to a 2019 BRAVELY study. Respondents included managers who reported avoiding difficult conversations with direct reports. And that's on issues other than layoffs.

"It's natural and human to feel hesitation or awkwardness to have difficult conversations," said Paula Heller, an HR executive leader-turned-entrepreneur in upstate New York. Heller led a 500-person staff reduction of nearly the entire workforce at the health/wellness resort where she worked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Knowing that you'll impact an individual, their family and the internal employee base adds to the difficulty," Heller said. "Plus, you don't know how employees are going to respond."

Treating the employee on the receiving end with respect and dignity is of utmost importance. Next time you find yourself having to deliver a tough message, consider these tactics to prepare and deliver the news. 

Preparing for the Conversation

In any people presentation, whether about training, benefits or layoffs, Ziskroit emphasizes the importance of preparing talking points: "Create a playbook, draft an agenda, yet realize every conversation may not follow your plan because it impacts everyone differently.

"The HR leader needs to partner with the founder/CEO and the executive team on what they want their employer brand to be," she continued. "Really discuss how you want the company to appear as they are holding difficult conversations with employees."

Timing the Delivery of the Message

Strategically timing the delivery allows ample time and space for both the HR leader and the employee involved. Coordinate the conversation with others who need to be informed—such as IT staff and department heads—and pick the right time.

For example, Heller never conducted layoff or termination conversations at 4 p.m. on a Friday, unless it was unavoidable. Waiting until the end of the week didn't leave enough time to meet with the employee or to activate the companywide communication plan. It also left the affected individual hanging until Monday before they could initiate unemployment benefits.

"To make the best of a difficult conversation, you need enough time to communicate with the employee and staff," she said.

Ziskroit and Heller agree that a video or in-person meeting is the best delivery platform for complicated dialogues. E-mails lack empathy and can be cringeworthy. Regardless of the method used, both note it's essential to communicate the decision to others impacted by the announcement without sharing confidential information about any single employee.

Preparing for Employee Responses

Part of the discomfort around difficult conversations is the unknown. Knowing that the talks might evoke an emotional response, including anger, naturally heightens the level of discomfort. Navigating the conversation involves watching for clues and responding based on the scenario.

For example, Heller suggested moving through the conversation without delay if someone seems to accept the news in stride. In other scenarios, it might be necessary to give the individual time to compose themselves if they become emotional. That may mean taking a short break before finishing the discussion.

"Offer the person time to respond without rehashing all the details, which will only heighten emotions," she said. "Then move the conversation as quickly as possible to next steps."

If an employee becomes angry, safety becomes the priority. Heller always took care to position herself and the manager involved closest to the door. She also checked the room ahead of time, removing any items that could be thrown. Security teams could also be put on alert for assistance.

Recognizing the Need for Self-Care

Empathy and compassion are as essential for the HR professional leading the conversation as for the person on the receiving end. In addition, recognizing the stressfulness of difficult conversations and taking time to decompress before jumping back into work is vital.

"Having a support group of other people leaders who you can rely on for insights and creative ideas is more important than ever," Ziskroit said. "Talking with someone who has gone through something similar without sharing confidential information helps you feel like you have a support team."

"I had 25 years of leading these conversations and found that there was a sense of relief for the manager and the impacted employee after a termination or a layoff," Heller said. "No one is looking forward to these difficult conversations, but once the decision is made and the conversation occurs, the individual can move on to a different opportunity, and more times than not, the individual finds another opportunity more aligned with their skills, abilities and values."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.


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