How To Lay Off Employees With Empathy: Hint – It’s Not a Zoom Call


Empathy is the word of the year, and it applies fully when delivering news of layoffs to one employee or a group of employees. How does one demonstrate empathy when laying off employees in the middle of a pandemic?

In late March 2020, employees of a scooter sharing app Bird in the U.S. were firedOpens a new window on what the company called a webinar about COVID-19 updates. 406 employees were asked to join the webinar, on which they reported a robotic sounding voice announcing that they had been laid off. The “webinar” lasted a mere 2 minutes.

Uber followedOpens a new window a similar route when it fired 3,500 employees over Zoom calls earlier this year. In calls lasting less than three minutes, Uber’s company manager laid off about 14% of its workforce.

While many people may argue that there is no more efficient way to communicate 400+ layoffs than a mass update, experts and employees themselves say that there is. Every aspect of the employee experience cannot be conflated with human efficiency. Being laid off in the middle of a pandemic when there are already a significant number of fears to juggle can be devastating. So, yes, individual calls delivered with empathy, compassion, and respect are necessary when laying off employees in the middle of a pandemic.

Learn More: Empathy in the Workplace: 12 Ways To Outweigh a Paycheck in the COVID-19 World

Can a Company Completely Avoid Layoffs?

ResearchOpens a new window tells us that laying off employees is not the most efficient way to cut costs. It affects the morale of the laid-off employee and the employees who survived. Staving off layoffs can also enhance employee loyalty to an organization. So the first step to laying off employees is to decide whether the action is essential.

For instance, earlier this month, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly announcedOpens a new window their plans to avoid furloughs and layoffs until 2021 by reducing his base salary to zero and announcing 20% pay cuts for company executives. Leadership group salaries have been reduced by 10% until January 2022. He also requested unions to accept pay cuts for the same reason. Southwest Airlines has never resorted to these measures through long periods of recession, redeploying employees to different roles instead of firing them.

But sometimes, companies cannot avoid layoffs. They seem like the only cost-cutting measure that might help stabilize business functions. They might be a way to eliminate redundant roles and enable cost savings.

How To Empathetically Deliver News of a Layoff

When layoffs are unavoidable, delivering the bad news requires leaders, managers, and HR professionals to keep one critical point in mind. Being laid off can be construed as a direct attack on an employee’s competencies, their ability to do a job effectively, and their lack of potential to grow or contribute to the organization. It can affect their future performance, and it can definitely affect the performance of survivors of a layoff. So how do you do it?

Being laid off can be construed as a direct attack on an employee’s competencies, their ability to do a job effectively, and their lack of potential to grow or contribute to the organization.

1. Be present personally

If there’s one thing to learn from Uber and Bird’s lessons, it is not to allow a robotic voice or an individual who had nothing to do with an employees’ job deliver the news of the layoff. Bird’s approach to employee layoffs led to a low Glassdoor rating and a lot of customers uninstalling the app.

Ideally, the immediate manager and HR should deliver the news together over a one-on-one (video) call. Alternatively, as equity management solution Carta’s CEO didOpens a new window , where he announced imminent layoffs and told employees they would be contacted if they were in the list, may also work.

Avoid informing employees about their layoffs through emails unless it is just a follow-up to a conversation you’ve already had with them about this. It is as unempathetic as an allegedly automated Zoom call and will affect employees negatively.

2. Be transparent

It’s essential an employee knows why they’re were chosen to let go in a team of so many employees. Some companies decide to lay off senior employees, some decide that it is those whose performance will not see them through the pandemic. Communicating this truth may not always be pleasant, but it is still vital. It may hurt an already hurting employee, but it may also help ease the pain a little.

3. Let employees know what you can do for them after the layoff

Communicate the company’s measures to protect laid-off employees through severance pay, health insurance premium pay, or the creation of an alumni network through which they can learn of upcoming opportunities in the company. When possible, offer outplacement facilities to help employees secure new jobs and recommendations to help them out.

4. Support managers with resources to carry out layoffs empathetically

Sometimes the decision to lay off employees can be taken overnight, leaving managers with few resources to communicate with their employees through this difficult time. Just expecting a manager to be good at this may not be wise, and equipping them with support on what to say, how to approach the topic, and how to communicate once the lay off has been announced will prove useful for them.

5. Express your concern without making the conversation about yourself

Laying off one employee or a group of employees is hard on the messenger’s mental health. And while managing your mental health is critical, sharing it with employees who are being let go may not be the best way to deal with it. If you don’t have it, ask for mental health support to handle this event.

Learn More: Boomerang Employees: Why Rehiring Former Employees Makes Sense During COVID-19

Why Empathetic, Compassionate Layoffs Are Critical

Equity management solutions company Carta also announced layoffs via Zoom. But the CEO delivered the news himself, and it could prove as an example of empathy in laying off employees. In the message he read to employees, published on MediumOpens a new window , the CEO was straightforward and vulnerable but reassuring.

Over the past month, as too many companies have done layoffs, too many leaders have shirked responsibility and let managers do the dirty work.

Here’s a rare example of a leader who didn’t pass the buck. This is what taking responsibility looks like: a new window

— Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) April 26, 2020Opens a new window

This is not just the most humane thing to do. It is also crucial because survivors of layoffs will remember how you let go of employees you were no longer in need of or couldn’t sustain. It will reinforce the value they bring to the organization when they see their colleagues treated with respect or disrespect, and it will affect their engagement, interest, and output at work.

Informing Other Employees of Layoffs

Once a set of employees has been terminated, other employees need to be informed. Clarity, transparency, and thoughtfulness will be critical to ensure them of their safety. For instance, they may be worried about whether they’re next, and if they are, they should know. Ideally, a memo informing employees that their co-workers have been let go would serve the function. Here’s a template you can use, best sent by organizational leaders or HR heads:

Dear Team,

You may be aware that X number of employees were let go of earlier today. It was not an easy decision, but it had to be taken. We understand you may be concerned about the safety of your own job. It is a difficult time, and while we cannot promise that there won’t be more terminations, we will do the best in our capacity to prevent such a situation.

We value your commitment to our organization and hope you will continue to demonstrate it as we navigate these tough times.

We wish our departing employees the very best and will do our best to support them going forward.

Your manager will reach out to you about any changes in team structure, functions, and roles. If you have any questions, please feel free to write to ___ at _____.

Thank you.

Demonstrating empathy becomes important not only for employees laid off but also those who stay back. Assuring them of their safety and reminding them that they are valuable to the organization can go a long way in preventing negative feelings including fear and resentment among them.

How have you navigated mass layoffs in your organization, if at all? Share your experience with us and our readers on LinkedInOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , or FacebookOpens a new window .