Although a layoff is life-altering for the person being let go, the event also has a very real effect on those left behind. Losing a co-worker can be traumatic. And employees will wonder about their own futures. So the announcement of a staff cut must be handled as carefully as the layoff itself.

“Your focus needs to be on protecting and reassuring the remaining people,” says Sue Murphy, association manager for the National Human Resources Association in Nashua, N.H. “You don’t want to start a panic within the organization.”

When notifying employees about a termination, business owners and managers must be as sensitive as possible while also protecting the company’s well-being. Here, experts explain how to do it.

Timing is everything

Coordinating the layoff with its announcement can seem like choreography. Should they be done at the same time, with the remaining staff in one room and the released employee at his or her desk packing? Should everyone be allowed to say good-bye?

The right answer depends on the company and individuals involved.

Many human resource directors prefer to keep the departing employee separate from the staff. “It’s cleaner, neater, less dramatic and emotional,” says Jill Evans Silman, vice president of Meador Staffing Services in The Woodlands, Texas.

If there isn’t enough time for the departing employee to pack during the announcement, arrange for him or her to return when the office is empty, or offer to box and deliver any personal items.

But in small, tight-knit environments this approach may seem too impersonal. You might want to allow employees to say good-bye in order to help everyone find closure. However, this should only be done under ideal conditions. If the departing employee tends to be dramatic, confrontational, angry or unpredictable, it’s best to keep everyone separate.

Staying on message

It’s best to gather whole departments or the entire staff to make the announcement, as opposed to telling people individually.

“[The news] is best delivered to the entire team, so that everybody hears the same message, with the same emphasis on the same words,” says Silman, who also serves on an expert panel for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Remember that some will feel the weight of the announcement more than others. Relatives, friends or those who worked especially closely with the former employee may need special consideration, and it’s a good idea to check in with them later.

If multiple managers will make the announcement to their own departments, provide them with a script to ensure a consistent message. “Otherwise people will put their own spin on it,” Murphy says.

In a company of 100 or more, e-mail is OK — but only after the affected department has been verbally notified. Compose the text of the e-mail with care. For example, don’t cause panic in your subject line with language such as “Layoffs” or “Staff Reduction.” Try something more subtle, such as “Organizational Announcement” or “Business Change.”

The text of the message should basically duplicate the verbal announcement, keeping all messages identical.

What to say

Choose a manager with patience and compassion to deliver the news. And remember that while it’s important to be sensitive, take special care when discussing the person who was let go, as this could come up if a lawsuit is ever filed. A cursory account as to why the person was let go is fine, unless performance issues were a factor. You can explain, for instance, that management decided to eliminate the position entirely. Do not, however, say that the person was chosen because of his or her weaker sales, for example.

It’s also wise to avoid discussing the conversation that took place during the layoff. “It’s just best to say, ‘We’ve made our decision based on what we anticipate the needs for the organization are in the coming months,’ and let it lie at that,” Murphy says.

But be careful not to come off as unfeeling. It helps to recognize that the former employee was valued for his or her contribution. If the person was popular, acknowledge that, too. “When you’re helping people through change, you always have to remind them of the history,” says Jeff Stokes, president of Next Level Contractor System in Lenexa, Kan. “Remind them that, ‘We’re really grateful for what these people did.’ It gives a sense of comfort, that it’s not about performance issues, but really is a business decision.”

Generally, one of the first things that goes through employees’ minds when they hear about a layoff is, “I hope I’m not next.” Though you can’t prevent their fear, you can avoid causing panic. Be direct. If you think the layoffs are finished, say so. But always acknowledge that things can change. If the future is unclear, be upfront about that as well.

“The honest thing to say is, ‘I’d love to promise that we’ll never go through this again, but the reality is that we’ll have to revisit every month, every quarter or whatever, until we can right the ship,’” Silman says.

You also can touch on how the departing employee’s work will be redistributed, as that helps staff to think forward. But just provide a big-picture view, saving details for those who will handle the extra work.

It’s also helpful to reassure employees by explaining your plans for keeping the company afloat. “It’s a great time to encourage brainstorming,” Stokes says. “You may need a rallying cry around which to encourage the remaining people so it doesn’t sound so bleak.”

There are no guarantees in life, and most employees understand this. But these steps can help ease the situation as much as possible and get staff back on track toward helping your company through difficult times.