Career Coach: The right approach to layoffs can take some of the sting out

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, September 27, 2010; 23

A woman recently told me about an experience she had getting laid off from a job: She was called into the office and told she was being let go, to gather her things, not speak to anyone and to leave as quietly as possible.

She said the layoff was a total surprise.

"Why does management find it necessary to treat people this way?" she asked. "Not only did I lose my job, but I was forced to leave under a cloud of suspicion, like a thief in the night."

Many individuals have experienced similar types of dismissals. And indeed, while some employers handle layoffs well, others really bomb at it. Here are some tips for employers on how to handle layoffs:

1. First, determine whether the firm really has to downsize. Sometimes firms use downsizing as the quickest way to cut costs, but it may not be the best long-term solution if you have to rehire and train new employees when the economy improves, which is very costly for a firm. Only a good human resources forecasting and planning system can help a firm decide whether downsizing is truly needed.

2. Consider other ways of reducing costs before you downsize. Sometimes employees are willing to take cuts in hours and pay if it means not losing their jobs.

The way in which you handle terminations sends a strong signal about your firm and impacts your brand. If you do have to terminate employees:

3. Have an effective performance appraisal system in place so that you can first terminate the low performers -- it is critical to keep the most talented employees. I often hear employees complain they were let go for subjective reasons. That is, they never got any previous feedback indicating that their performance was below standards.

4. Give sufficient notice to employees about their pending termination. There is a lot of debate about this among firms. Some do not want to give any notice for fear that employees will steal company ideas, products, etc., or strike back at the firm. Others give employees enough notice so that they can prepare for new jobs. I believe if you treat them as human beings, they generally act that way.

5. As a manager, it is okay to share your emotions with the employee. Even though you may be counseled by legal and HR departments to act in a detached manner, letting the employee know you are sad to have to let him or her go, if you genuinely feel that way, is important for the employee to see.

6. Be honest. Don't tell an employee you are letting him or her go because the firm doesn't have any money and then turn around and advertise for a replacement as soon as the person is are gone. One of the most successful senior executives I know told the truth to employees about their low performance when that was the cause of termination. While it was difficult for him to tell them -- and for them to hear -- many remarked to him that they actually appreciated his honesty. The meaningful feedback could help the employees in their future job search.

7. Think about how you are treating an employee who is leaving your firm -- like a fellow human being or like a criminal? For good employees who have to be downsized through no fault of their own, shouldn't they be given an opportunity to say goodbye to their colleagues or collect their family pictures off of their desks? Do employers have to dismantle their e-mail address or confiscate their cellphone before the day is even over?

8. Make sure the terminated employees hear about the terminations before others do. I have heard of some cases in which reporters knew about the layoffs before the staff was even informed.

9. Don't tell workers about a termination on a Friday. It may be easier for management to inform workers on a Friday, but it is more difficult for employees, who may not have support services to turn to over the weekend.

10. Provide the news in person and in private. It is a good idea to have the direct manager and HR representative present when delivering the news. Telling an employee in a public place with others around or by e-mail is just bad taste.

11. Provide outplacement counseling to employees or hire a good outplacement firm to assist employees in putting their résumés together, practicing their interviewing skills and searching for new jobs. Even smaller firms can put together a list of reputable outplacement firms. Employees who secure employment within several months of leaving a firm generally have more positive attitudes toward their previous employer, especially if the firm helped with the job search process.

12. If a good employee had to be let go due to economics, follow up with him or her several weeks later. Asking how things are going or offering your support or encouragement can really mean a lot.

13. Remember: The people we terminate can end up being future clients, suppliers or other contacts in the future. The "golden rule" applies -- think about how you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end of a termination.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

© 2010 The Washington Post Company