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Performing a Layoff with Empathy

Sep 5, 2023

Engineering Leadership

The layoffs in the tech industry have been rampant since the end of last year. Unfortunately, my team had to undergo layoffs recently as well. The decision to perform this layoff was difficult to make and the follow up decisions on how to execute it were equally challenging. At the end of the day, I think my team handled the situation as best as it could be done. Out of respect for the company and those involved, I will not be speaking to the specifics around why these layoffs had to be done or details around who was impacted. This post is to share what I thought were positives from the process and provide insights for those having to make similar challenging decisions. I want to share how we approached these layoffs from a place of empathy.

Preparing the Team

One of the original questions asked by our C-suite was “how can we do these layoffs in a humane way?” At the time, I think I took this question for granted. This is not to say that I didn’t think about ways to be humane for our team, but what I learned a bit later is what I thought was humane wasn’t necessarily humane for another team.

To explain, I saw a video of Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports sharing his perspective on his recent layoff - to be clear, I don’t agree with Dave, but his thoughts and the thoughts of those on the show with him were contrarian to my beliefs. My immediate reaction was to read the comment section in hopes of finding people blasting Dave to confirm my belief and to my surprise, the comment sections were supportive of how Dave and team implemented their layoffs. I was initially flabbergasted by this finding but as I thought about it, different teams and industries likely prefer to handle things differently. I thought back to the 2011 film Margin Call which starts with a Wall Street firm that underwent layoffs preceding the 2008 financial crisis. The characters talk about the ruthlessness of the layoff at times referring specifically to certain treatments of characters involving security escorts and lack of warning for the layoffs that occurred.

In both these cases and in ours, the general underlying consensus is “don’t surprise the team”. Each group and industry requires different handling. For us, this was highlighting certain facts to the team. Since I started with the company, we’ve been transparent with our team regarding the work coming in and leaving which directly impacts our capacity. However, the overall insight of all resource allocations isn’t regularly shared which creates some opaqueness. To alleviate this, we held several all-hands meetings preceding the layoff to ensure the team understood that our capacity was lower than needed and how they could help improve the company’s state. Our goal was two-fold: (1) ensure the team knew that we needed to increase our sales opportunities and (2) not create a workplace of fear.

Executing the Layoff

One of the comments I made to the original question was “don’t leave people in limbo”. At a previous job, the team had to go through layoffs. Frankly, those layoffs were handled rather poorly and I learned about them during some planned time off. I received a late in the evening text message from a few colleagues to the tune of “It was nice working with you”. I was freaking out - did these people lose their jobs? Was I publicly fired during time off? I finally got my boss on the phone the next morning where he explained that my job was safe but those folks that texted me were no longer with the company and what had occurred the day before. I’ll spare you all the details of all these interactions, but the lesson learned was - make sure people who are keeping their jobs know what’s going on. This is especially true for companies that need to immediately revoke system access due to immediate termination.

There are a couple of ways to solve this. Option 1 - hold an all hands meeting for those that will be staying to let them know that a layoff is coming and that they were not impacted. Option 2 - tell each team member staying individually. Option 1 has the pro of being less time consuming, but it has the con that everyone impacted may find out before you’ve had the chance to tell them yourself leading to unideal results. Option 2 has the major con of being time consuming, however, it prevents team members from knowing who is impacted ahead of time allowing you to communicate what is needed to the impacted individuals. Option 2 has the additional con of creating some obscurity around how to manage the transition of the layoff but this can be mitigated.

From here, you have the same decision to make for informing those impacted which have similar pros and cons. If you want to work with these individuals again in the future, I strongly recommend option 2 though. It gives an important personal touch that helps maintain the relationship during a very trying situation.

I do recommend for both situations that you have a “script” that you’re delivering from. I think the following bullets are good high-level ones to consider:

  • What is happening and how the individual is impacted.
  • Share wishes for communication to afford everyone an equal opportunity to find out the news meaningfully.
  • For those staying:
    • Share when individuals are leaving
    • Share how the company is treating those impacted
    • Share what other changes and restructuring changes are happening that can be shared
    • Share next steps
  • For those impacted:
    • When is the individuals last day
    • What are the high-level details of severance if available
    • Note any key follow up meetings that need to occur
    • If they are given a notice period, set expectations for the notice period
    • If dismissing immediately, clarify next steps
  • Leave time to answer questions or allow them to respond
  • Thank them for all their hard work and commitment to your company

After the Layoff

Now that the news has been delivered, there’s a few things as leader to keep in mind. First, you’ve had more time to process what’s going on so you may be ready to move onto the next stage of grief - your team still needs some time to catch up. Be there for your team and help them process the events around you. Definitely discuss this ahead of time with other leaders to ensure you all are aligned on messaging as there will be difficult questions that need to be responded to meaningfully and consistently. Second, those staying are still at risk to leave - just because they survived the layoff won’t mean they want to stay. You need to create transparency with those remaining and give them reason to continue to trust you and believe in what the organization is doing. Finally, follow through on any commitments made during the layoff. In our case, we offered continued support to team members in helping them to find their next career, and we followed through on this by leveraging our networks and offering help where requested in prepping these individuals for interviews and application processes.

I’m writing this in a time where we’re still processing what’s happened and some of the impacted team still remains. I’m sure there will be more lessons here, but the above are the ones I’ve learned so far and have appreciated. We’re starting to find our new daily rhythm and continue to work closely with our teams to navigate our changed company.

Closing Thoughts

Layoffs are not easy. I hope I’m never in a position again where I need to make decisions around them. However, if I am, I’ll look positively on this experience as it’s prepared me for how to approach the situation with empathy. I’m sure others will disagree with some of the points I made or have different approaches. Ultimately though, I think as long as you’re doing your best to treat your team with dignity, you’re doing the best you can regardless of how others may look upon your circumstances.