The act of laying off an employee is never pleasant, but following a few guidelines can help the staff member retain dignity, while protecting your company at the same time.

Timing is everything

One of the trickiest aspects to letting go of staff is timing. Some company owners want to perform layoffs as soon as the decision has been made in order to cut as much cost as possible. Others choose to terminate employees at the end of a pay period to simplify bookkeeping.

There’s also the staff member to consider. Managers may think that Friday is best, figuring that the person will have the weekend to recover. But this is probably the worst time from the employee’s standpoint.

“[A Friday layoff] gets them upset, because they’re at home stewing, and they can’t do anything about it,” says Jill Evans Silman, vice president of Meador Staffing Services in The Woodlands, Texas. “It will be Monday before they can get productive. It gives them a lot of time to build up aggravation.”

Monday is also tough, because people are just coming back from the weekend. Many experts agree that a Tuesday or Wednesday is best from the employee’s standpoint because it gives them a chance to begin putting their lives in order right away.

As for time of day, hold the meeting when there are the fewest people around — say, during lunch or toward evening after others have left.

“People become embarrassed and ashamed. They feel that they’ve failed,” says Ken Pinnock, director of the Human Resource Departmernt at Mountain States Employers Council in Denver. “This way, you can give them a graceful way out.”

If you have to let go of multiple staff members, meet with each one separately. But take care of all meetings on the same day. If more than one manager is handling the meetings, try to have them conduct the layoffs simultaneously. When layoffs occur in fits and starts, employees are constantly on edge about when the next termination will take place.

In addition, it’s important to have the right people present at the meeting. Many HR professionals suggest having two representatives from the company in attendance — the appropriate manager and someone from HR or Operations. For firms without a dedicated HR position, it’s a good idea for the company owner to be present to make sure the proceedings are handled correctly.

The second person serves two purposes: He or she helps provide support to the manager having to relay the news. But more importantly, they provide a witness in case the employee files a complaint afterward.

The right message

Regardless of who handles the meeting, certain things should be said, while others should not. The goal is to be clear about what’s happening, respect the person, and avoid engaging in discussions about the decision itself.

“You don’t want to talk too much,” Silman says.

Get to the point immediately. Don’t give a drawn-out speech leading up to the main issue, since this can leave the person wondering whether they’re being let go. Remain factual and stay on the main message. Explain that the company has had to make some tough choices and that, after serious consideration, the decision was made to downsize.

There are also some basic facts that must be made clear. Is the layoff effective immediately? If not, when is their last day?

It’s not a good idea to talk about why that particular employee was cut, nor should their job performance be discussed. Those conversations leave the door open to debates, bargaining and misinterpretations that can lead to legal complaints later.

If you have eliminated the person’s position altogether, you can say so. That reinforces that the decision wasn’t based on personality or performance. But don’t explain the decision process.

“This is where you just say, ‘As you know, we’ve been looking at ways to save money or control costs. We’ve [considered] different options, but we’ve now come to the time where we’ve had to eliminate positions,’” Pinnock says. “Don’t get into a long litany of defense or justification.”

Make clear that this was a tough, sad choice, but don’t indulge in conversation about your emotions.

Final exchange

After delivering the news, the conversation should be steered toward the future. Hand the employee his or her final paycheck, and discuss whatever severance or unpaid vacation is being paid. Also explain Cobra benefits and how to apply.

Discuss any kind of assistance you can provide in their job search, whether it’s a reference or the use of your computers to create resumes. Then go over logistics and deadlines. How is any retirement account to be handled? If the employee is receiving workers’ compensation, clearly outline any deadlines for claims.

However, this may be too much crucial information for the person to absorb as they try to process the situation.

“We offer them the chance to come back if they’d like and have their spouse come sit and listen, too,” says Chris Ragel-Hazen, co-owner and human resources manager of Patio Pools & Spas in Tucson, Ariz., a Pool & Spa News Top Builder.

Finally, collect what you need from the employee. Ask for items such as keys, cell phones, gas cards or other pieces of company property. Also, gather any other information such as passwords.

If the employee is up to it, try to discuss the status of any outstanding projects. But don’t push them past what they’re emotionally able to do. Also, give the staff member the choice of whether to pack any personal belongings immediately, or to come back at a time when the office is empty.