We’ve all heard the horror stories. Hundreds of employees being laid off on a company-wide zoom, via a preecorded video message, or corralled into a room and unceremoniously dumped. While layoffs are an unfortunate reality in the world of work, carrying them out in a way that feels less than humane can not only impact the people let go, it can harm your company’s reputation. While there’s no way to plan a mass departure where no one’s feelings (or finances) are hurt, there are ways to soften the blow.

While there is no way to make someone who is losing their job feel good about receiving this news, the best you can do is maintain the dignity of those affected and make sure that next steps are all considered and effectively communicated. If you’re in the unfortunate position of planning layoffs at your company, here’s how you can plan a kinder, smoother process.

*Note that we are not lawyers nor are we giving you legal advice. Always consult your counsel on specifics!

Plan Your Paperwork

Be sure to consult your local laws on how much pay you must provide any laid off employees. It’s common (and kind) to provide additional  pay beyond the legal minimum for those impacted by a layoff. If you can swing it, try to be as generous as you can afford to be. Additionally, you will want to think about:

  • Ensuring you are compliant with all local regulations. For example, did you know that in Ontario there are rules for layoffs over 50 people?
  • Ensuring your termination paperwork is up to date (see your lawyer!)
  • Having a strategy for employees on commission or other unique compensation structures. For example, if a deal they worked on closes within 3 months of their layoff, will you pay out a commission?

Plan How You’ll Take Care

Taking care of those affected by a layoff isn’t just about a (hopefully) generous payout. Additionally, you can consider:

  • Keeping people on benefits and perks for an extended period of time
  • Allowing people to keep equipment, such as their computer, phone or any home office equipment
  • Avoiding clawing back vacation debt
  • Offering career counselling or outplacement services
  • Creating (with permission from all included!) a list of affected employees that are available for new opportunities. This can be shared on social media, or to any investor/founder networks that you’re a part of
  • Writing individual letters of recommendation or LinkedIn endorsements, if you’re comfortable doing so
  • Offering help navigating your local unemployment benefits system
  • Providing a mental health benefits through virtual therapy platforms, if it’s not already covered in your extended benefits package

Plan Your Timing

  • What date will the layoff happen? Does this give you sufficient time to plan?
  • Does this date coincide with any major holidays or events or anything else of significance inside or outside of the company?
  • Who is booked to be on vacation or otherwise out of office during this time, and how will you handle communications and logistics for them?
  • While we don’t subscribe to rules about what day of the week is best for a layoff, Friday can be a bad choice, especially if it’s the end of the day. Generally, you want to allow space and time for people to come to leaders and HR with questions, rather than giving them the weekend to stew on bad news without additional information.

Plan How You’ll Do It

Here’s the hard part: letting people know that they’re going to be laid off. There’s no perfect way to communicate this, and each has logistical, emotional, and reputational pros and cons. Here are a few options:

Option 1:

Meet 1:1 with everyone affected. Pros: Much more personal, and allows for privacy in the conversation. Generally, this approach is preferable if you have a small group. Cons: Logistically difficult if you have a larger group. Should ideally be carried out within a short time span or at the same time by multiple managers, as spreading these meetings out can cause a sense of unease amongst employees as the news leaks and they wonder if they’ll be called in next.

Option 2:

Plan a larger meeting, giving employees some notice that layoffs are coming. In this strategy, the company informs the team that layoffs are coming that day (or shortly), and that they will be called into a meeting to learn whether they are affected or not. Companies employing this strategy typically hold two meetings, one for those affected, and one for those who are not. Pros: Gives folks some advance notice to process the news. Is efficient for larger groups. Cons: This will be a difficult day. Staff will very much be on edge waiting to hear the news, rumours and speculation are likely to fly, and if this is done in person, the aftermath is awkward as everyone from “Meeting A” shuffles to grab their belongings.

Option 3:

Carry out the layoffs in a larger meeting, without notice. Similar to the strategy above, but staff are not given advance notice of the layoff. Pros: Efficiency. Cons: Feels impersonal, and folks may be surprised and upset. Don’t use email for this.

Additional Tips:

  • If possible, have the CEO themselves deliver the news. If the company is quite large and only one department is affected, the executive leadership of that department could lead the conversation as well. Having HR on hand is a good strategy for support, but they shouldn’t be the team delivering the news. Using an external, unknown person to deliver the blow is also not recommended. Leadership skills are demonstrated in tough times, and this is a time to show up and take ownership.
  • Avoid prerecorded messages or laying off people via email, even at a massive firm. It’s impersonal, dehumanizing, and just plain rude.
  • If you must deliver the news in a group setting, offering 1:1 follow up meetings can be a good strategy to walk people personally through their exit package and any questions they may have.
  • If layoffs are being carried out in person, regardless of the strategy, try to keep the office clear of remaining employees to avoid awkwardness as people depart. You might choose to keep the “remaining” group in the meeting room a bit longer, or ask people to work from a different side of the office.

Plan What You’ll Say

When it’s time to deliver the news, be quick and concise. Don’t dwell awkwardly on small talk (the weather, weekend plans). Let them know right away that you have hard news: the company is having to conduct layoffs, and that they will be impacted. Talk about any next steps or instructions. If you are offering things like outplacement, extended benefits packages, etc, it’s good to mention it in the meeting. Feel free to acknowledge the difficulty of the situation for those impacted, and thank them for their hard work, but avoid talking about your own difficulty in making or communicating this decision. It’s not about you.

Most people will find it difficult to retain details after hearing hard news, so be sure to send follow-up information on termination packages, collecting any items, available services and any other relevant information you share.

Plan How You’ll Tell The Rest Of The Team

Don’t wait to break the news. As soon as you can, gather everyone for a meeting and (personally) deliver the news that a layoff has happened. Again, you’ll want to be clear, quick and concise, and address a few common concerns up front, such as:

  • Why is this happening?
  • How are we taking care of the people affected by the layoff?
  • Are more layoffs coming?
  • How will work be reprioritized? Are there any major responsibilities that others will have to take on?
  • What does the future look like? Are our goals or targets changing? What is our way forward?

Again, avoid dwelling on how difficult this is for you (or leadership) personally. Also, as with any departure, respect individual privacy and avoid discussing underperformance or other personal reasoning in selecting who was affected.

Your aim here is to ensure the team members you’re retaining feel valued, heard and safe. Try to keep things somber and respectful of the difficulty of the situation, but also hopeful for the future and grateful for the presence of those remaining. Often, those remaining want to help or reach out to those affected. You might suggest they write them recommendations on LinkedIn, reach out with support, or help to circulate a list of who is now available for work (with permission, of course).

Let the team know where questions can be directed, and be sure to have managers check in with their teams and reports in the coming days to see how they’re feeling. If some employees are receiving new responsibilities, have moved teams, or otherwise been impacted, these check ins are especially important.

If you’re a high profile company conducting a major layoff, you can also expect some press coverage. You may want to get ahead of the messaging by getting advice from an internal or external communications or PR specialist. News outlets will often get tipped off about layoffs while they are still happening, so the best PR strategy is to focus on treating your exiting employees well.

Plan Your Logistics

Some additional considerations when you’re planning a layoff:

  • If you’re conducting layoffs in person, which rooms will be used? How will people or groups flow through the office when exiting? Is there a way to give them privacy?
  • Do you have everyone’s updated personal contact information (email, phone, address) and emergency contact information?
  • How will paperwork be distributed (email, in person, in a follow-up meeting?)
  • Which programs, equipment and places does each person have access to? Who will cut access to accounts, and when?
  • Is all work reassigned, and does everyone remaining have an assigned team and manager?
  • Who will inform any affected external parties, such as clients, contractors or vendors of a change in contact?
  • Who is the point of contact for departing employees' questions?
  • Will affected employees be able to collect items in person, or will you send a courier?
  • If your organization has a hybrid work approach, will various in person/virtual meetings need to be organized?

Delivering news about layoffs may be one of the hardest things you’ll have to do as a leader, but is also an opportunity to demonstrate your values and take care of people during difficult times. While you may be concerned about the future of your business, focusing on people and empathy will ensure those remaining stay engaged, your company’s reputation stays intact, and that you know you did the best you could in a tough situation.