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Layoffs Suck. Here are 5 Ways Leaders Can Make Them Humane

Originally published by Fast Company

Over the last few years, we’ve had plenty of moments that made us shake our heads and wonder, “Did that really just happen?” Last week was another one of those times. There’s no doubt Elon Musk is a brilliant, intelligent human being who pushes the boundaries of where curiosity and cleverness can go. However, the way he has handled last week’s layoffs forgets basic human decency at a time when divisiveness and unity in our workplaces [and society] are being put to another test.

Companies go through normal cycles of growth and struggles, and Twitter is no exception. Musk didn’t hold an enviable position, and as a leader, he made hard decisions to keep the ship from sinking. But the result of most big layoffs is the abrupt impact in hundreds or thousands of lives [that ripples an impact to families and communities.] This brings about the significance of choices made in how it’s done. 

What Side of the Humanity Line Do We Choose?  

According to Musk’s Twitter, they were losing $4 million every day. Although layoffs are obviously one of the ways to right the sinking ship quicker, there are ways to make these tough decisions while prioritizing your company values and your people. As a global society, we’re still recovering from the world getting 2020’d. Gallup’s latest State of the World’s Workplace report found stress and anxiety levels are at an all-time high, and there is a lot we haven’t processed as to how much these past years have impacted our mental, emotional, and physiological states.

Knowing we can’t control how the next round of layoffs are going down [Zuckerberg just announced Meta is laying off more than 11,000 employees], we can take a reality check for humanity. No matter what level of an organization we’re in, we can treat other human beings by being just that: human. 

As we’re entering another season of layoffs and uncertainty, leaders can mitigate uncomfortable and life-changing situations with a heavier lean into humanity. By using a heartful head and a mindful heart, you can deliver bad news with empathy and compassion.

1. Remember When You Were There Before

Even if you’ve never been laid off, there have been times in your life when you’ve received devastating news. The times that made you question your worth or value to the world, or maybe the time you lost someone you couldn’t imagine life without. Remember what you were feeling and what got you through it. In other words, lead your actions and words with empathy first.

2. Deliver through ACTion [Alignment, Clarity, Transparency]

Plan and conduct the layoffs while aligned with your values. Even if the company as a whole might not be living them, you can. Communicate clearly and directly about why this is happening, not sugar-coating that “everything will be alright.” People appreciate honesty and transparency because they’re being treated like human beings, not a number or collateral damage. 

3. Amp Up the Psychological Safety

Give them the opportunity to ask questions. Then, actively listen. Sincerely. You don’t have to be the mechanic to fix everything, but sometimes being the mirror goes a long way. Ask genuine questions about their mental and emotional well-being or what options they might have now, basically anything that speaks directly to what they’re thinking and feeling [not you]. 

4. Don’t Fight the Law [It Usually Wins]

Be mindful of the legal ramifications of how you choose to conduct layoffs. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification [WARN] Act serves as a warning that if proper notice is not given, the penalty can result in thousands of dollars in fines, not to mention the bad press and poor employee morale that comes along with it. [Musk’s legal teams may have slid around that by continuing to pay people after the layoff, but it’s beside the point because of how it’s made people feel.]

5. Take Notes from Those That Did it Well

Airbnb is a prime example of doing layoffs the right way. Their business came to a halt when the world stopped flying, but CEO Brian Chesky led difficult decisions with transparency and humanity. He shared the news with empathy, telling employees that these decisions were not a reflection of their work but rather the result of the global downturn. Airbnb provided healthy severance packages, including 14 weeks of base pay, plus one additional week for every year at Airbnb, and health insurance coverage for 12 months. They even assigned their internal HR team to assist laid-off employees with their job search. Airbnb handled these layoffs with authenticity, holding true to one of its values: human connection. Now, having weathered the worst of the storm, they just announced their most profitable quarter ever as one of the most well-positioned leaders in their industry.

One of our clients, National Business Capital, worked extremely hard to create a healthy workplace culture over the years. When they were drastically impacted by the pandemic, the CEO, Joe Camberato, was forced to make some cuts. After getting laid off, one of the employees immediately went to the store to buy Joe donuts and coffee, telling him, “I know you’re doing everything you can right now to get us back and rockin' and rolling, so I figured you’ll need this.

When you focus on culture in good times, the humanity and heart of your people will rise to the occasion in challenging times. National Business Capital's people-first culture gave them resiliency and allowed a rebound from the pandemic in unpredicted ways. They’ve been named Top Place to Work for the fourth consecutive year, in a stage of new growth, recently relocating their headquarters to a new building optimized for their people. 

How we navigate challenging times is a reflection of who we authentically are and what we truly value. When the inevitable downturns come, we can either choose to stand by our purpose and values and treat people as humans, or we can cling to the numbers hoping that’ll save us. Either choice will define your living legacy and, whether good or bad, will be a clear tell on what side of the humanity line you stand. 

Get the Living Your Legacy exercise found in the Beyond Happiness Playbook.