Viewpoint: How to Conduct Layoffs with Heart

By Glenn St. Onge November 29, 2018

Editor's Note: SHRM has partnered with the Association for Talent Development (ATD) to bring you relevant articles on key HR topics and strategies.

When you have to let employees go, leadership and coaching can help you do it with compassion.

Ten years after its inception, a clean energy joint venture's technology had progressed well; however, its parent companies felt the timing was right to bring the technology back to their respective development teams. Board members from both parent companies informed their subsidiary's senior management team that it would be shutting its doors.

When I learned of the closure in a meeting with two of those board members, they asked me to oversee the people side of the closure process. I agreed on the condition that the two parent companies commit to treating employees in a fair, respectful and generous manner. Both board members fully supported this approach, setting the stage for planning what would be an eight-month people-closure process of this business based in Vancouver, Canada.

As head of HR, my vision was to craft a closure process that, if eligible for an award, would win one. With the board's and senior management's support, the HR team spent days brainstorming and creating the people-closure plan in advance of the closure announcement to the entire team.

The CEO informed all employees of the closure in early November 2017, which was a tough day for everyone. Following the announcement, I communicated the people-support closure plan.


The people side of our closure process incorporated several components, including severance packages, emotional support, coaching, skills training, career transition support services and a job fair.

Employee severance. The first part of the people plan was to prepare severance agreements for each of the 150 team members, structured to retain employees who would need to stay until the end.

After the closure announcement, we (the HR team) and director-level leaders met one-on-one with employees to present and review their severance packages. This was an important step that gave each employee the time to confidentially discuss their severance.

Employee emotional support and coaching. Building in support to take care of the emotional side of job loss was a key part of our plan.

Our strategy was to provide emotional support to the team throughout the process, especially during the initial days following the announcement. Since we and director-level leaders would be tied up with providing the severance agreements, we brought our company's employee and family assistance program on-site to be available for counseling.

The second part of the emotional support involved using our company's robust coaching culture to support the team. I had become a CTI-certified coach and introduced coaching to the firm in 2012. As of 2016, we had an additional 25 internal coaches.

We realized that to be most effective, our team of coaches needed to process what they were experiencing regarding the closure announcement prior to supporting others. To help in this regard, we held a workshop with our internal coaches two days after the announcement.

We didn't know what to expect from this workshop, but it turned out to be both a difficult and powerful experience. The coaches left the session committed to coaching the entire workforce through this difficult chapter. The coaching program continued throughout the closure process.

Additional support resources came in the form of three additional workshops where we provided employees a space where they could talk about where they currently were emotionally. The team was still struggling with the news, and many were stressed and worried about the future. We kept the grief curve in mind as we created the employee workshops, understanding that every member of the company would go through the curve—shock, anger, denial and acceptance—at different times and maybe even go back and forth on the curve.

Career transition services. For most employees, it had been years since they had looked for work. To prepare them to re-enter the job market, we brought in an external career transition company that provided a variety of services, including:

  • career coaching
  • resume writing and interviewing skills workshops
  • sessions on updating a LinkedIn profile
  • sessions on starting your own company and negotiating job offers.

Company job fair. In the second week of May 2018, we held an old-school, in-person job fair for our employees. With participation from 18 employers, this gave team members direct access to a wide range of companies and resulted in many employees landing new job opportunities.

Employee training. During the closure period, we helped employees sharpen their skills and prepare for their next jobs. We created and delivered two internal courses: StrengthsFinder Assessment and Maximizing Your Potential—a life and career planning session. Then we brought in several external suppliers to offer skills-focused courses, including:

  • project management exam preparation
  • Six Sigma Greenbelt
  • persuasion and influencing skills
  • introduction to coaching.

Finishing strong. As the company's closure date approached, the director of operations proposed an idea to the senior management team that would help ensure our workforce finished strong in its final month. He named each of the final four weeks and, in true engineering fashion, had a graph showing one curve for us finishing strong and another for us fizzling out. We chose to finish strong and implement his plan.

The fourth week from closure was called "Nobody Gets Left Behind." It focused on the team helping others find their next job. The third week was called "Leave Everything a Little Better Than You Found It" and focused on cleaning up our office space. The second week was called "Make a Habit to Do Nice Things for People Who Will Never Find Out." It focused on fundraising for two local charities and ended with an employee picnic and talent show. The last week was called "Never Waste an Opportunity to Tell Employees How Much They Mean to the Company," and it was about everyone thanking one another for the great work they had done over the years.

Closing ceremony. On June 29, we held a closing ceremony celebration during which the team expressed their final thoughts and best wishes to one another. Employees were divided into two lines, each line facing the other. Participants then acknowledged each other with the following two statements: "What I most liked about working with you was ..." and "My hope for you is ..." This exercise was a powerful way to end their time with their colleagues.


Overall, our people-support closure plan yielded positive results for our company, our parent companies, and our employees in many areas.

Despite an initial feeling that many employees would leave between the November closure announcement and the company's closure, our fair severance package and employee support efforts ensured that high turnover never transpired. Only 7 percent of our team left during the closure period.

We conducted a survey in May asking employees for feedback on our closure process. Here are some of the results:

  • 80 percent of employees left the company feeling confident in their future success, compared with 57 percent after the November closure announcement.
  • 98 percent received a severance and benefits package; of these, 81 percent rated it as "excellent" or "very good."
  • 88 percent attended technical training workshops, with 86 percent rating them as "excellent" or "very good."
  • 98 percent used our career transition services; of these, 82 percent rated them highly.
  • 56 percent participated in our internal coaching program, with 72 percent approval.
  • 85 percent of those who attended internal employee planning and StrengthsFinder workshops rated them favorably.

We also conducted another survey in mid-June, just before the closure, to measure employees' job search progress. Three out of every five (60 percent) had found new jobs prior to closure, and 20 percent were taking time off, starting a new business, retiring, or were part of the small group of employees staying until the end of 2018 to help fully close the company. Only 20 percent of employees were actively looking for a job and had not yet found one.

Lessons Learned

As our results show, having heart when letting employees go has a positive effect on both an organization and its people. Had our situation been a reduction in force versus a full closure, a program such as ours would have given us an engaged group of departing employees and high morale among remaining team members.

Here's one thing all companies considering downsizing should ponder: Why would you ever let people go without heart?

Glenn St. Onge's most recent role was as head of HR, where it collided with coaching, which became his new passion.

This article is excerpted from with permission from ATD. ©2018 ATD. All rights reserved.



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