Managing Your Teams Through Layoffs

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) casts an uncertain shadow across the globe, employers find themselves facing the possibility of staff reductions.

Restaurants, hotels, entertainment companies and retailers have begun to implement furloughs, cutting shifts and even layoffs as operations are halted or severely impacted.

“The first waves of layoffs caused by the coronavirus outbreak are hitting the American economy now,” says Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao. “As the outbreak expands and Americans are hunkering down, businesses across the country are facing the difficult decision of whether or not to lay off workers.”

As you rally with your company leadership to discuss the current climate and its impact on your bottom line, you may be looking at scenarios where layoffs are a reluctant necessity. While it may be tempting to focus on revenue and balance sheets, it’s imperative for you to focus on your people. Thoughtfully approaching big HR decisions like staff reductions will not only serve those who may be losing their jobs, but it also sends a strong signal to those employees who remain with your organization.

To help you during this difficult time, Glassdoor spoke with executives and leaders across several industries to hone in on the best ways to manage your teams through layoffs.

Operate with Compassion & Empathy

“Remember that a layoff is a somber event…as much as you may want to highlight the positive and rally the remaining employees, it’s not a time for parties or celebration,” says Rob Chesnut, Chief Ethics Officer of Airbnb and author of Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution. Remember, how you act now will leave an impression on your employer brand. Chesnut adds, “One Bay Area company famously announced layoffs, then served the remaining employees rounds of tequila and had a DJ play music; those who remain will need to grieve at the loss of teammates, and will want to see financial austerity.”

RELATED: How to Make Layoffs as Compassionate as Possible

Communicate Clearly

Managers and executives are uniquely called and qualified to step up with both the business and the employees in mind. “Any communication regarding any change in someone’s employment — reduction in hours, reclassification, furlough or layoffs — it’s important they be handled with sensitivity,” says HR consultant at Red Clover, Erich Mochnacz. “Right now, employees are potentially juggling child care, worries about their own and others’ health, and the potential of job loss. If their manager is able to demonstrate calm, rational thinking and communication rather than panicking alongside their people – that’s key to navigating this unknown territory. The minute you respond to panic with panic, you lose some level of integrity as a manager.”

Furthermore, it is wise to build out communications and FAQs for all employees. “Honesty and consistency will keep employees engaged. When you communicate honestly, employees will be able to trust you and remain loyal and engaged,” says Jared Weitz, CEO/Founder United Capital Source Inc.  “If there is a topic or element that you can’t address, be upfront and tell them that. The last thing your team needs is someone dancing around the answers. Humans are creatures of habit and when you can keep things as consistent as possible, especially during tough times, the team will feel safe and better capable to manage their work.”

Small business owner, Anh Trinh of GeekWithLaptop, agrees. “The best way to ensure that there are no hard feelings is to prepare for it. You need to communicate with your workers from the very start that there is a slight chance of them being laid off from work. Communicate early on that you will be supportive and help them get back on their feet by either referring them to another company or ensuring they get unemployment benefits.”

RELATED: 5 Steps for Managing Turnover — and Minimizing It in the Future

Be Human First

“It’s ok to be vulnerable and express your emotions. Layoffs are sad and will result in grieving; you can grieve too,” says executive coach and Founder/CEO of Reverb, Mikaela Kiner. Not only should you be human first, but it is also an opportune time to be as transparent as possible.

“Share the business reasons why you chose to eliminate certain roles and how you anticipate that [layoffs] will enable the company to survive and eventually grow. While they may not like it, people do understand this kind of logic” says Kiner. “Give remaining employees time to recover from the loss of their friends and colleagues. Too much ‘cheerleading’ too soon is not empathetic. Once the dust has settled, paint a picture of the new future that people can rally behind. Remind people of the mission, vision, and values that have made the company successful.”

In the process of layoffs, try to allow enough time to answer questions in one-on-one conversations. Give people time to pack up their offices and say goodbye. If possible, Kiner says, “Make sure people have information that they can use to manage their stress – EAP, coaching, or mental health support. Don’t lay people off on a Friday or before a holiday, when those resources will not be available until Monday.”

Offer Outplacement Assistance

Consider offering support to outgoing employees by helping them transition to new jobs. Partner with a consultancy firm or job coach to provide this service because layoffs are one of the most stressful things a person will experience.

“Outplacement is a rapidly growing component of a severance agreement that is intended to help employees find work following a layoff or job loss,” says Paula Cizek, Chief Research Officer of NOBL, an organizational design firm. “Go the extra mile to help your staff by working to get them into new roles outside your company.”

Offering career transition coaching, resume writing and other services speak volumes about your empathy and values.

Common outplacement services include:

  • Professional resume and cover-letter writing
  • Personal, one-on-one career transition consultations
  • Help with establishing an online presence for job searches
  • Optimization of resumes for automated resume screening processes
  • Online resume and cover letter posting
  • Personalized salary reports
  • Individual outplacement support (as opposed to group seminars)
  • 24/7 remote support done online

RELATED: How to Manage Teams When Working Remotely

Recalibrate the Workload

“In addition to the emotional toll that surviving a layoff has on employees, you have to also be mindful of increased workload requirements,” says Joey Price, CEO of Jumpstart:HR, an HR Outsourcing and Consulting company for US-based Small Businesses and Startups. “Set your employees up to win by re-evaluating inefficient processes and carving out clear expectations for performance plus support to get the job done.”

Invest in Employee Engagement & Morale

Coming together in times of crisis is what we do as humans. “Managers should inspire positive emotions as well as promote camaraderie in their employees,” says Trinh. “Your workers are worried about losing their job which can greatly affect their performance. This is why they need a positive source of stimuli in the office, and that stimuli should be you.”

Alex Azoury, Founder and CEO of Home Grounds, reminds all executives to remember that while culture impacts all of our people, it is the people that make the culture. Layoffs will impact morale and communication can help. “A company-wide address is in order if you plan to layoff more than 10% of your workforce. Don’t offer false promises, but if you can genuinely reassure people of their jobs, now is the time to do it,” says Azoury.

Also, rally your company’s culture carriers to support their colleagues as well. “I recommend encouraging staff to network and share alternative income opportunities with each other,” says Lior Ohayon, CEO of Hush Blankets. “Particularly in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still remote work opportunities available to laid-off employees. By spreading the word and providing recommendations, a team can work together to get through a layoff. On top of that, if you’re a supportive boss, you are encouraging staff to return to you in better times.”

Continue to Check-In

Turmoil at work or staff reductions are not a “one and done” occurrence. This kind of disruption can have long-lasting ripple effects in your associates’ lives.

Elmer Taboada, Marketing Manager at DaVinci Tech, reminds us that remaining employees might have their closest friends or family who has been dismissed. He reminds us: “Listen to their concerns individually and reassure them using factual details only. One-on-one communication is an intimate bond between leader and follower. Your people tend to be more vulnerable when they feel they’re in a safe space to let their concerns out. It is best to reassure them afterward only with the truth. Don’t sugarcoat or lie to make them feel better. The consequences of doing so are grave, and it will ruin your reputation and honor.”

Workplace analyst Cindy Lo of doubles down on the importance of keeping a retained workforce feeling engaged. “Regular check-ins are necessary, especially if things get bad. One on one meetings with each employee as well as the entire team can be a huge remedy,” says Lo. “If possible, these meetings should be conducted via video call instead of over the phone. After all, face time can be a huge help for people to not feel isolated. While this tactic will increase the number of meetings on the calendar, it’s nonetheless necessary for maintaining engagement.”

We are in uncharted waters with COVID-19, but in times like these, we need to rely on two things: our company values and our HR skills. We can’t predict every situation that we’ll face in the coming weeks, but we can ensure that the decisions and conversations we have with our teams are filled with transparency, empathy and authenticity.

Learn More

Glassdoor Resources for Employers Navigating COVID-19