In the realm of traumatic
situations, losing your job ranks among the top, just below death
of a loved one or going through a divorce.
But dealing that blow to an employee is no picnic, either. While
not as stressful as sitting on the other side of that desk, it does
take a toll.
Tim Murphy learned this when he was forced to lay off more than
100 people in the past two years. “As time progressed it got
really hard,” says the CEO of Presidential
Pools & Spas in Gilbert, Ariz. “You think about it at
night, you worry about their families. The economy is so bad that
you wonder, ‘Are they just going to be another person in the
unemployment line? Where are they going to go?’”
There’s also the guilt, thinking that maybe if you had
done X, Y or Z, no one would have to leave.
And through it all, managers need to pump up the troops, stretch
resources to the limit and make sure the business remains
“What keeps me going is the survival of Presidential
Pools,” Murphy says. “I try to take my emotions out of
it. I look at the company as a separate entity that has a
responsibility to its employees, customers and subcontractors.
Presidential Pools has to go on, and therefore I have to make the
Successfully handling layoffs means much more than preventing
lawsuits or dealing with employee morale. Those things are
important, but almost equally meaningful is taking the right steps
to handle the difficult emotions that come up for both employer and
staff. Here are some guidelines to help make the process
Before the layoff
Proper mental preparation can help minimize the pain of a layoff
and ensure a successful meeting.
“The best way for managers to handle this is to ask
themselves, ‘How do I want to remember this three months from
now?’” says Douglas McKenna, a business consultant and
CEO of The
Oceanside Institute in Greenbank, Wash. “If you feel as
good as you can about how you handled the process, that’s
going to lessen the guilt.”
Practice the meeting beforehand. In his experience, McKenna
found that some managers would show nervous ticks, such as
giggling. “Imagine how giggling would come across to an
employee who’s hearing that they’re going to lose their
job,” he says. By practicing in advance, you can root out
To steel up, McKenna recommends what he calls the Four
C’s: Calmness, Connection, Conviction and Courage.
When laying off an employee, it’s crucial to come into the
meeting as calmly as possible. Taking a walk beforehand can be
helpful, as can breathing exercises. If the manager performing the
termination is scattered, defensive or too emotional, it’s
almost a guarantee that the meeting will go poorly.
Next, consider your personal connection with the employee to
help anticipate his/her reaction. Think about his or her
personality, as well as your relationship, and craft the message
with those things in mind.
Third, it’s important for a manager to remember his or her
convictions. Again, consider how you want to treat the departing
employee. And remind yourself that this layoff will benefit the
company and its remaining employees, and that needs to be any
business owner’s first priority.
Finally, have courage. “Even though your voice may quake
in the meeting, you need to stay true to your message,”
McKenna says. “Acting with courage means delivering a
principled message and then creating space for that employee to
talk about their reaction and their feelings.”
If it’s appropriate, arrange for someone else to attend
the meeting. Another manager or the person who handles
human-resource matters can act as a buffer and provide additional
information when needed.
During the layoff
During the meeting, it’s tempting to do certain things to
minimize your own guilt and discomfort. But try to avoid some of
One tricky area is the question of how much empathy to give the
employee. It’s best to avoid saying things like, “I
understand how you feel,” as this often provokes anger.
“You may think you understand, but you don’t —
even if you’ve gone through it yourself, because
everybody’s situation is different,” says Sue Murphy,
association manager of the National Human Resources Association in Nashua,
N.H. “That’s one of the worst things you can
In addition, don’t make promises you aren’t certain
can be kept. It’s OK to say that an employee is eligible for
rehire, but don’t speak in definites. “No one’s
promising anybody anything now,” says Chris Ragel-Hazen,
co-owner and human resources manager for Patio Pools &
Spas in Tucson, Ariz. “There’s never been a time
like this, and we can’t predict what’s going to
Finally, it’s wise to keep the meeting short. You want to
give the employee an opportunity to react and ask questions, but
not so much time that the meeting becomes overly emotional and
“I’ll ask [a manager], ‘How long did it
take?’ They’ll say, ‘We talked for about an hour
and a half,’” says Thomas Fuller, a business consultant
and president of Strategic Planet, a Cedar City, Utah-based company
that has worked with the pool and spa industry. “I
don’t mean to be callous. But the initial step needs to be
quick and effective.”
Some experts are more conservative here than others. Fuller
believes the meeting should take around five minutes. Others say up
to a half-hour.
After the layoff
After letting people go, some managers make serious missteps when
interacting with remaining employees. Here again, managers want to
make themselves or others feel better. But these techniques can
Often, in an effort to calm the staff they make promises they
can’t keep. “There’s a temptation to say,
‘OK, we’re not going to have to do any more layoffs.
Your jobs are safe,’” says Paul Sessions, director of
the Center for Family Business, University of New Haven, in West Haven, Conn.
“But unless you are 100-percent sure, I’d be really
careful with those statements.”
Other managers want to isolate themselves and say as little as
possible about the state of the company. Immediately after the
layoff, you may need time to decompress, but over the long term
it’s not a good idea to remain too close-mouthed with
employees. Staffers become more anxious.
And while you may hope to prevent gossip from spreading within
the company and among competitors, being uncommunicative
won’t do the trick. “Do you know how you stop
gossip?” Ragel-Hazen asks. “You tell them the truth.
Because if you don’t say anything, they’ll make stuff
But how much to tell? The answer varies depending on
personal style, but it’s wise to let employees know how sales
have been. “I believe that companies should open up their
profit/loss or their income statements to employees,” Fuller
says. “Not balance sheets, debt load, or how much money is in
the bank, but what are we selling, what’s it costing us to
sell that, and how can we continually work to improve.”
Sharing that information will help employees feel less out of
control, and may even make them better workers. “They have a
psychological ownership of what’s going on in the
company,” Fuller says. “They may go the extra
This kind of communication also will make any layoffs in the future
go smoother, since they will be somewhat expected.