How to Manage Coronavirus Layoffs with Compassion

By Rebecca Knight
June 23, 2020

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 School. “This experience for most of us is unfathomable,” he says. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty and people’s minds are whirring.” 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, says Kenneth Freeman, Dean Emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “You’re human and you’re going to have a lot of those 2 AM moments,” he says. But the key is to try as best you can to separate your personal worries from the task at hand. “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, Margolis recommends asking 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 exceptional 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.” As a leader, you need to spark “resourceful, creative thinking about how your organization can save as many jobs as possible.” Freeman suggests gathering your management team and asking, “Can we make sacrifices elsewhere? What are our other options to reduce costs?” Your goal is to think broadly about how you distribute the widespread negative consequences of Covid-19. “Laying off people should be the last resort,” he says. And if you must do layoffs, make every effort to “avoid multiple rounds” of cuts.

 

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, says Freeman. People are likely going to have a lot of questions about the timing, their benefits, and severance. These conversations may need to happen fast, but you’ll have a better chance of easing your own and the employee’s anxiety if you can provide them with answers about what happens next. 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?” and “What happens to my 401K?”

 

Understand your limitations

Even if you’ve presided over layoffs in the past, overseeing them during the coronavirus outbreak will be different for one key reason: they won’t take place in person because of social distancing measures. What’s more, you need to have a highly private conversation at a time when privacy is difficult to achieve. “We all have families under foot and lots of things going on,” says Margolis. He suggests asking your employee, “Is there a time when I can get 15 minutes of your full attention?” Be forewarned: you may get pushback. They may anticipate what’s coming and “some people aren’t going to have the psychological wherewithal to deal with it,” he says. In this case, he recommends saying something like, “Can you let me know when you’re ready to have this conversation so I can tell you the next steps?”

 

Set the right tone

Because you will deliver the message remotely, Freeman says that you must take extra care to break the news “with empathy and compassion.” Your aim is to “treat people with dignity, fairness, and respect.” Even though you may worry that you, too, might get laid-off, this particular termination is not about you. “This is not a time for you to take up space,” says Margolis. Don’t succumb to your insecurities by saying something like, “This is really hard for me.” At the same time, don’t “totally detach from your humanity” so that you “become a mechanical robot.” Instead, find a way “to engage your emotion” and cultivate a “calm and low-key” manner. 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,” says Margolis. 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,” he says. 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 a specific job performance,” says Freeman. “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. For a lot people, “colleagues are part of their extended family.” Try to convey the message, “We all care about you.”

 

Offer assistance — but don’t overpromise

Freeman recommends “being readily available” and willing to provide “support and counsel” to your employee even after the initial conversation. Recognize that this person may need time to process the news and may have questions for you later. “They might come back to reconnect or seek your advice.” 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, cautions Margolis, “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,’” he says. But no one has that kind of foresight. “Don’t sugarcoat and don’t give false hope.”

 

Be transparent

In times like these, your remaining employees will look to you for comfort — and an explanation, says Freeman. “The survivors are going to be worried about their jobs,” he says. The fact is, “no one knows where this is going to end,” so the “onus is on you to be as transparent as possible.” He recommends you hold an “Ask Me Anything” session — an open forum of sorts — so that “rumors don’t take over.” You will need “a succinct explanation for why the layoffs were necessary,” says Margolis. He recommends something like, “The organization is facing a challenge unlike anything it has ever faced. Let me tell you what we did, why we did it, and how we can move on.” Then it’s up to you to “absorb their tension and agitation” and listen to their concerns. You need to “exude a commitment to continue to move forward,” he says.

 

Vent (selectively)

This is an excruciatingly stressful time for everyone, and managers often bear an extra burden, says Freeman. “You feel responsible for the livelihoods of your team and for the health and wellbeing of their families,” says Freeman. One of the many ways that people “cope with turbulence” is by going to routines and rituals, says Margolis. But because of widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, our routines “have been disrupted.” It’s critical, therefore, that you have “a place where you can vent, release tension, and where you deal with your worries.” Find someone else you can talk to — a peer perhaps, a mentor, or a colleague at a different organization. “It’s okay to articulate in certain circles that you don’t know about your own future and that unleashes worry.” But be selective and cautious about how much stress and emotion you show to your team. “All eyes are on you” to provide a path forward.

 

Focus on your wellbeing

Finally, take care of yourself, says Margolis. “Hopefully, this is the only time you face something of this magnitude. But it’s unlikely to be the only time you face a challenge during a period of great uncertainty.” 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. After all, “you are not alone,” says Freeman. Unfortunately, “there are a lot of supervisors going through this.” 

 

Principles to Remember

Do: 

  • Think carefully about whether layoffs are necessary and reflect on ways your organization can save as many jobs as possible.
  • Show compassion for your employee and stress that the layoff is not their fault.
  • Seek out a peer or a colleague outside your organization to whom you can vent and ask for help in coping with your own uncertainty.

Don’t: 

  • Overcommit. Provide support and counsel to the people you’ve laid off, but don’t promise things you can’t deliver.
  • Make this about you. Avoid saying things like, “This is really hard for me.”
  • Neglect your wellbeing. Make a concerted effort to eat well and get enough sleep, and take time for self-care, including exercise and meditation.

The cases below are from people who have presided over layoffs in the past. While the circumstances today are unique, hopefully the previous experience of leaders provides some helpful lessons.

 

Case Study #1: Part of your job is to absorb the emotion

Leah Solivan, the founder and former CEO of TaskRabbit, the online marketplace that lets people hire freelancers for odd jobs, says the recent rash of layoffs due to the coronavirus crisis is giving her ugly flashbacks. “I feel like I have PTSD,” she says. “I know exactly how these founders and managers feel.”

Leah founded TaskRabbit just a few months before the global financial crisis that began in 2008; and she oversaw several rounds of layoffs before her company was acquired by IKEA.

The year 2014 sticks with her. The economy was improving, but TaskRabbit faced an uncertain future. Customers were shifting toward mobile technology and competition for the platform was intensifying.

Leah realized she couldn’t hold on to the company that she had worked so hard to build unless she made big changes. After many agonizing conversations with the company’s five-member executive team, Leah came to the conclusion that she needed to eliminate 20 employees, about 25% of the workforce.

“I knew it was best for the company in the long run, but at the time I was living my worst nightmare,” she recalls. “I was letting people down.”

But Leah understood that these layoffs were not about her. “However difficult it was for the team and I to make the decision, I knew it was going to be more difficult for the people I had to let go.”

Her first order of business was to craft a message to the affected employees that was short and succinct. She said something like, “We are not on a sustainable path. In order for the company to be healthy and move forward, we need to reorganize the team and unfortunately not everyone can stay.”

Leah met with each employee individually and offered compassionate support, including a generous severance package. She also worked her network to help departing employees find new job opportunities. “I wanted to take care of these people so they could make a smooth transition.”

After, she talked with her remaining team members and offered to answer any questions. “At the end of that day, we had a companywide meeting where people got up and said what was on their minds. Some said, ‘I feel sad,’ or ‘I feel angry,’ or ‘I feel disappointed.’”

It wasn’t easy to hear those things, Leah admits. “My job was to absorb it,” she says. “And I felt like a failure.”

Preserving her own mental health and resilience was a challenge. She recalls venting to her executive team. The camaraderie helped. “We were all in the trenches together.”

Today Leah invests in startups as a VC at Fuel Capital. Lately, she has been offering guidance to companies as they face similar challenges. “There’s no way around it: layoffs are hard,” she says. “It was the most difficult thing I had to do.” 

 

Case Study #2: Offer compassionate support and express gratitude

As a longtime veteran of the HR industry, Carla Yudhishthu has overseen several corporate downsizings over the course of her career. It never gets easier. “You’re trying to be as honest as you can and treat people with dignity, but you have to manage your own emotions and your own fears, too,” says Carla.

She remembers a round of layoffs early in her career that was particularly difficult. The year was 2003. She was working for a publicly held medical device business in the Bay Area that had already underwent a round of layoffs in 2001.

“We hoped we would only have to do it once, but the company was facing a lot of problems and we needed to have multiple iterations,” she says.

As an HR manager, Carla was tasked with laying off dozens of employees — including several people on her team. “I had to tell my colleague who was 20 years older than me and had a family that he no longer had a job,” she says. “I thought, ‘Who am I do to this? Will I be ok?’”

Carla remembers practicing what she would say. “You need to get through the pragmatic details,” she says. “But it’s emotional and when someone reacts emotionally you can lose track of what you have to say.”

Carla says she approached the layoffs with humility and honesty. She also wanted to offer as much help and support as she could. Before breaking the news, she and her colleagues gathered information on to how to access unemployment and the limitations on COBRA benefits. “We put a lot of thought into what the message should be,” she says. “And we tried to anticipate any questions that people might have.”

She received reassurance from her unit’s leadership that her job was safe. But her cortisol levels remained high. To cope, she compartmentalized the task at hand. “From 7:30AM to 5:30PM, I needed to think about the organization; I could worry about myself after that,” she says.

“I remember doing lots of deep breathing, and lots of running and yoga.”

Communicating the news to the remaining employees was another challenge. She and her colleagues in HR were transparent. “We couldn’t make promises because we knew our company needed get out of the woods,” she says. “We wanted to give everyone confidence that everything was going to be ok. But we couldn’t. No one was secure.”

That company eventually closed and today Carla is the VP of People Operations at Mammoth HR and ThinkHR. Her advice for managers overseeing layoffs today: “Try to create a personal connection.”

“Write your employees a thank you note to express your gratitude and appreciation and say goodbye,” she says. “At a time [like this], it’s a gesture that will be remembered.”

Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.  Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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