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How to Handle Layoffs and Retain the Trust of Your Team and the Respect of Others

As a seasoned COO HR executive and small business owner, I understand the profound impact layoffs can have on those who depart and the entire organization. Before the painful decision to lay off employees becomes unavoidable, it's crucial to consider proactive hiring and financial planning strategies. Businesses can mitigate the risk of future layoffs by strategically evaluating long-term staffing needs and resisting the urge to over-hire during economic booms. Early and transparent communication about potential economic downturns can prepare the staff, reducing anxiety and fostering a more trusting and respectful workplace environment. Moreover, understanding the legal and ethical considerations surrounding layoffs ensures that the process respects the rights and dignity of each employee, thereby maintaining a fair and compliant workplace.


Legal and Ethical Considerations

Layoffs are not just a managerial challenge but also a legal one. Familiarize yourself with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires businesses to provide a 60-day notice period for large-scale layoffs. Even if your business is smaller and not covered by the WARN Act, giving employees advance notice is good practice. Ethically, it's crucial to ensure that the layoffs do not disproportionately affect any group based on race, age, or gender. Be transparent about decisions and strive to handle the process reasonably.


Selecting Employees for Layoff

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides exceptional guidance to business leaders with clear guidelines and considerations for choosing the most equitable and effective approach to determining which employees to lay off.


Deciding which employees will be laid off is a critical and challenging step that requires careful thought and strategic planning. Various methods can be employed, each with its strengths and potential pitfalls. Clear documentation about the method and process used should be documented whichever path you choose. Here are some commonly used selection criteria:


1. Seniority-Based Selection

The "last hired, first fired" policy is grounded in seniority-based selection. This method rewards employees for their tenure at the company. One advantage of this approach is a reduced risk of age discrimination lawsuits under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), as it naturally protects longer-serving employees, who are often older. However, a significant drawback is that it might compel you to retain employees whose skills have become outdated or who may no longer meet the company’s evolving technical needs. This could affect the company's agility and ability to innovate.


2. Employee Status-Based Selection

Another approach is prioritizing part-time or contingent workers for layoffs before full-time, core staff. This method aims to preserve job security for your permanent workforce, which can help maintain operational stability. However, if contingent workers do not make up a large portion of your workforce, more than this strategy is needed for significant downsizing needs. It is often used with other criteria to achieve the desired workforce reduction.


3. Merit-Based Selection

Merit-based selection assesses employees based on performance. This method is favored for flexibility, allowing managers to identify and retain high performers. Nevertheless, it's essential to apply this criterion cautiously as performance assessments can be subjective, influenced by rater biases and may lack comprehensive documentation. To mitigate legal risks and ensure fairness, it is crucial to maintain meticulous records of all performance evaluations and the rationale behind each layoff decision within this framework.


NOTE: If you do not have documentation of underperforming, do not use this method!


4. Skills-Based Selection

Selecting employees based on the skills critical to your business’s current and future needs can help retain essential talent. This approach favors employees with the most current and versatile skill sets, which may inadvertently skew toward younger employees. It's essential to ensure that this method does not result in age discrimination against older workers who are protected under the ADEA. As with other methods, clear and thorough documentation of decisions will be essential to defend the selections if challenged.


5. Multiple Criteria Ranking

The most balanced approach is to use a combination of the aforementioned criteria. Many organizations find that integrating multiple factors — such as seniority, skill, performance, and other considerations — leads to the most equitable and effective outcomes. Here is an example of how multiple criteria can be integrated:

  • Employee’s long-term potential and attitude: This involves assessing not just current performance but also the projected future contributions of the employee.

  • Employee’s skills, abilities, knowledge, and versatility: Focusing on the range and applicability of skills the employee brings to the organization.

  • Employee’s education and experience levels: Considering formal education and cumulative professional experience as potential versatility and leadership factors.

  • Employee’s quantity and quality of work: This involves evaluating both the output and the quality of results delivered by the employee.

  • Employee’s attendance history: Looking at reliability through patterns in attendance, which can indicate commitment and dependability.

  • Employee’s tenure within the company: Valuing loyalty and historical contributions, balanced against other factors.

By using a combination of these criteria, you can create a balanced, fair layoff process that aligns with the legal requirements and your business goals, while respecting all employees' dignity and contributions.


Conducting the Layoff

When it's time to notify employees of their layoff, do so with compassion and respect. With smaller groups or individuals, scheduling a private meeting with each employee to be laid off is recommended. During the meeting, be direct yet sensitive, explain the reasons for the layoff clearly, and focus on the fact that it's a business decision, not a personal one. Provide all the details about their final paycheck, benefits, and any severance package they might receive. Recognize the emotional impact of this news and give them time and space to process it. It is common for organizations with larger populations being laid off to hold a meeting an communicate with many people at one time. This minimizes anxiety and rumors. However, ample time should be allocated for questions with private meetings offered as needed.


Support for Laid-off Employees

When layoffs become unavoidable, how support is extended to those affected can significantly influence the laid-off employees' individual experiences and the overall workplace atmosphere. Here are several ways you can provide robust support to laid-off employees:


1. Communication and Clarity

First and foremost, transparent, respectful communication about the layoff process should be provided. Employees should understand why layoffs occur, how decisions are made, and their specific next steps. This includes detailed information about severance packages, benefits continuation, and their final paychecks. Providing this information in verbal and written forms will help employees fully comprehend their options and entitlements.


2. Severance Packages

Offering a severance package significantly alleviates the immediate financial strain on laid-off employees. The package includes continuation of salary for a set period, payment for unused vacation and sick days, and a bonus. While not mandatory under federal law, severance packages are a sign of good faith that helps maintain a positive relationship with departing employees.


3. Benefits Assistance

Provide guidance on how laid-off employees can continue their health insurance through COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) or other health insurance marketplaces. Additionally, provide information about any life or disability insurance portability and how they can convert these benefits.


4. Job Placement Support

Offering outplacement services can assist laid-off employees in finding new employment. These services can include access to career coaching, resume writing assistance, interview preparation, and job search strategies. If the budget doesn’t allow for formal outplacement services, consider organizing workshops or providing resources to help employees navigate their job search effectively.


5. Unemployment Benefits

Educate employees on how to apply for unemployment benefits. This can include providing instructions during the exit meeting, offering handouts with step-by-step guidelines, and listing the contact details for the local unemployment office. Make the process as straightforward as possible to ease their transition.


6. Emotional and Psychological Support

The emotional impact of being laid off cannot be overstated. If available, offer access to counseling services through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or provide information on local mental health services. Support groups or facilitated meetings for laid-off employees can also offer emotional relief and a sense of community during this difficult time.


7. Training and Development

Provide opportunities for laid-off employees to upgrade their skills through training sessions, online courses, or workshops. This will not only assist them in their immediate job search but also help them long-term by enhancing their employability.


8. Legal and Financial Advising

Provide access to legal and financial advising to help employees understand their rights and options regarding severance, benefits, and unemployment insurance. This can prevent confusion and help them make informed decisions about their next steps.


9. Maintaining Connections

Encourage laid-off employees to stay connected with the company through alumni networks or social media groups. This can be beneficial for networking and future job opportunities. It also helps maintain positive relationships and community ties, benefiting the employees and the company.


Managing the Remaining Workforce

After layoffs, it's critical to effectively manage the remaining workforce's morale, engagement, and productivity. These employees have just seen their colleagues leave, which can create feelings of uncertainty, fear, or even survivor's guilt. Here are strategies to ensure they feel supported and motivated to move forward with the company:


1. Open and Honest Communication

Immediate, open, and honest communication is paramount after layoffs. Schedule an all-hands meeting as soon as possible to discuss the layoffs openly. Address the reasons behind the layoffs, how decisions were made, and what it means for the company's future. Be transparent about the current state of the business and the steps being taken to stabilize and grow.


Encourage questions and provide clear, concise answers.

  • Timely Updates: Keep communication regular and timely. Update your team on any new developments as soon as possible to avoid the spread of rumors that can further destabilize morale.

  • Department-Specific Meetings: After the all-hands meeting, managers should hold smaller meetings with their direct reports to discuss more specific impacts on each department and address personal concerns.

2. Reaffirming Commitment to Employees

Reassure the remaining employees of their value to the organization. Highlight various teams' and individuals' contributions and achievements, emphasizing how they contribute to the company's vision and goals. This reassurance can boost morale and productivity and demonstrate your commitment to their growth and job security.


3. Redefining Roles and Responsibilities

The departure of colleagues might mean changes in roles and responsibilities for the remaining staff. Clearly outline any new roles or adjusted responsibilities. Provide training if new skills are required. This helps minimize confusion and empowers employees to meet new expectations.


4. Supporting Career Development

Enhance focus on career development for remaining employees. Offer training and upskilling opportunities and create clear pathways for advancement within the company. This shows a tangible investment in the workforce and can improve loyalty and job satisfaction.


5. Fostering a Supportive Culture

Create an environment where employees can openly express their concerns and feedback without fear of repercussion. Encourage managers to regularly check in with their teams, not just about work but also to offer support on a personal level. This can help identify and mitigate any issues before they escalate, and it reinforces a culture of care and respect.


6. Recognizing and Rewarding Effort

During times of uncertainty, small gestures of recognition can go a long way. Recognize remaining employees' hard work and dedication more frequently, whether through verbal recognition, rewards, or company-wide emails. Consider implementing new recognition programs or enhancing existing ones.


7. Building Trust Through Inclusion

Where appropriate, involve employees in decision-making processes. This inclusion can help rebuild trust and give employees a sense of ownership and control over their work and the company's direction. It also helps gather diverse perspectives, leading to better overall decisions for the organization.


8. Maintaining an Open Door Policy

Ensure that leadership maintains an open-door policy, encouraging employees to speak freely with their supervisors about their concerns and suggestions. This transparency not only helps in addressing specific employee concerns but also aids in building trust and loyalty.


Conclusion

Navigating layoffs is undoubtedly one of the most challenging business management responsibilities. It is a tough conversation despite taking actions that are a sound business decision. As an HR leader, advocating for a process steeped in dignity, fairness, and transparency is paramount. By carefully planning and communicating, supporting those laid off, and attentively managing the remaining workforce, you can mitigate the negative impacts of layoffs. Implementing thoughtful strategies during both prosperous times and downturns protects the business’s operational needs, its moral integrity, and public reputation. This empathetic and strategic approach ensures the company can recover and thrive post-layoffs, maintaining a loyal, engaged, and productive workforce. This commitment to fairness and transparency supports those directly affected by layoffs and sets a positive trajectory for your business's future, building a resilient and supportive workplace culture.


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