By Nancy Koury King, DM
Being laid off or let go is one of the most brutal experiences an employee can undergo. Not only is job loss a threat to financial wellbeing and health care, it is also a significant emotional trauma with reactions including shame, humiliation, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. On top of that, a key source of the individual’s social and professional identities is gone.
In the book, Real Research for Real Managers, Dr. Jone Pearce states that these unfortunate experiences are made worse, for both the departing and the remaining employees, when management handles them without thoughtfulness and sensitivity. In fact, bungled dismissals are one of the greatest threats to an organization’s employee engagement and reputation. We’ve seen these unseemly and needlessly callous separations in the news and all over social media. For example, according to a New York Times report, former FBI director James Comey found out President Trump fired him while addressing FBI employees. The television coverage of his firing was broadcast over monitors in the room.
You may have witnessed some distressing departures where you work. Often being laid off or let go is an abrupt and/or humiliating experience. People lose their jobs without notice, without a goodbye, and without a thank you.
Stories from the Front Lines
I have collected dozens of stories from people who have been fired or laid off for my book, Fired: How to Manage Your Career in the Age of Job Uncertainty. They provided me with many stories of insensitive and poorly managed dismissals, like one company that invited the department to the conference room for cake and instead of a celebration were told their jobs were being eliminated. Or another person, who won a company-wide award, was, a year later let go and immediately perp-walked by security out the door in front of fellow workers. Several people told me that they were abruptly asked, without notice, to leave — later learning the company sent out an email at 4:55 pm saying “. . . Jane Doe is longer with XYZ Company.”
Now to be clear, I am not talking about the very necessary or high-risk terminations when an employee is clearly violating rules, potentially a threat, or abusing alcohol or other drugs. That’s another story. I am talking about people who are laid off or perhaps not able to do their job well. Or people who are subject to organizational restructuring or a new leader who wants to bring in his/her own people.
Protect Your Reputation
So, how do these poorly executed separations affect the organization? First, assume that your remaining employees will either hear directly or indirectly about the incident and talk about it. Someone will talk to the separated employee(s) and hear about how they were treated. Or another employee might have witnessed the exit. When remaining employees see their friends treated poorly they wonder, “Am I next?” or “Is this company worth my loyalty?” In addition, they may advocate for the separated employee at work or on social media. Some employees react by disengaging, doing just enough to get by, but no longer share enthusiasm for their employer. One person said to me, “I can’t wrap my whole world around this job anymore.” They become distrustful of management and no longer feel safe.
It can also affect customers and suppliers. Often they forge relationships with employees of the supplier, and as such, are part of the conversation and rumors about the separations. Or customers may wonder about the stability of the company.
Finally, a significant consequence of poorly managed separations is that unhappy employees, remaining and departed, share their experiences on social media. Glassdoor, for example, provides a powerful and free forum for people to write reviews of a company’s culture and how it treats its employees. It is common for potential new hires from the front line to the C-suite to research your company on social media and pay attention to the disgruntled and/or former employee reviews about working there. In fact, according to Glassdoor, 79% of job seekers use social media during their job search.
How to End It Right
Difficult decisions around layoffs and separations are a part of management. And, as hard as they are, sometimes we make the impact worse than it has to be. So what can organizations do to ease the impact of layoffs and separations?
If at all possible, provide the affected employee(s) notice. Admittedly, most lawyers and HR people will tell you to have the employee exit as soon as you tell them they will no longer have a job. Also, since letting someone go is one of the most painful things a manager can do, there is a tendency to have the person leave quickly so as not to be reminded of them. Yet, notice allows people to take care of things like getting their resume in order, looking at health insurance, and applying for unemployment. It also gives them a chance to say goodbye to co-workers. It tells the employees, departing and remaining, that you trust them.
Tell employees as soon as you can. The last thing you want is for someone to buy a new car or spend a lot of money on Christmas when you know they are going to be laid off or let go. And, let’s be honest, companies are not very good at keeping secrets. So often the word leaks out before the official announcement. Better to do a planned, thoughtful announcement than to be caught off guard by rumors.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s a given that much of the information around layoffs and terminations is confidential. That said, try to be as honest as possible about what is creating the number and timing of the layoffs, such as worse than expected growth results, an unprofitable business line, needing to cut expenses, etc. These explanations help people save face and somewhat depersonalize the event. In the case of a termination, work with the employee to create an exit story so that he or she has an agreed-upon explanation to share with co-workers, future employers, family, and friends. And, do not justify your decisions to others by blaming or scapegoating the person who was let go.
Try not to let people go the last week of the month. Health insurance starts the first of every month and lasts for the entire month. So if someone is let go the 5th of the month, they have a little extra health care coverage before they need to go on COBRA or purchase new health insurance. People separated at the end of the month have to move quickly to get coverage while dealing with the fallout from job loss. If possible, include severance or pay out their accrued vacation time. If outplacement services or an EAP are possible, offer those as well.
Help those affected find other positions in the organization. This is not always possible or practical, but this is a very positive sign of goodwill. Even in separations, you may find the person is just not in the right seat on the bus and they may be a better fit elsewhere in the organization. If the individuals were good employees, offer them assistance in getting re-employed. Offer to be a reference.
Make the announcement of the separation to the rest of your company in a caring manner. Nothing screams “you don’t care about employees” like a Friday, 4:45 email that says so and so is no longer with the company. If there are ways to acknowledge their years of service and their contributions, all the better.
Allow your employees to craft a message (with your approval) to their co-workers and customers, and for social media. This gives the employees some control in the situation. I have seen some excellent examples of people letting others know they no longer have a job, “. . . but are grateful for their time with their employer and are looking forward to new opportunities.” Having an exit story also helps reduce the chance that a disgruntled employee will inflict reputational damage on the company. And it positions the employee in a positive and professional manner that their next employer will appreciate.
Grace and Dignity
It is so difficult to let someone go, whether they “deserve” it or not. Handling these gut-wrenching decisions with grace and dignity helps the departing employee cope with this difficult transition. Sensitive and professional handling of layoffs and separations also helps leaders keep the trust with their employees. In both cases, it’s the right thing to do.
Whether departures from your organization are voluntary or involuntary, handle with care: Red carpet in, red carpet out.
King, Nancy Koury. Fired: How to manage your career in the age of job uncertainty. Create Space Publisher Independent Publishing Platform. December 2017
Michael D. Shear and Matt Apuzzo, FBI Director James Comey is Fired by Trump, New York Times. May 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/09/us/politics/james-comey-fired-fbi.html
Pearce, Jone. Organizational Behavior: Real Research for Real Managers. Melvin & Leigh, Publishers; First Edition (2009)