I have to lay people off (while hiring). Help me be a good human.
May 22, 2015 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I am a new boss at a small company and our business model recently changed. I have to hire about 10 new people — and layoff about 10 current staffers. The moves are to bring on the new skills we need for this new era. How can I do this kindly, respectfully, and in a way that sets up the team members who are staying with us for success after this rough period?

I would love to hear from people who've been through layoffs either as employees or managers. We are turning over about half of the team. A few specific questions:

— Rumors are already swirling. Do I move faster to rip off the bandaid?
— What's the best timing between hiring new folks and laying off the previous folks? I have to do all of this within a month. I have my new hire candidates already selected. What is the right order or operations? Should the two groups overlap?
— What's the kindest way to break the news to the people we have to say goodbye to?
— How do I explain this to the new folks so they're not freaked out by the turmoil?
— What do I do to take care of the people who are staying on, so they feel valued and secure in this period?

And what was the best thing that your boss said or company did that helped you in a layoff? We are offering some severance and positive recommendations to all those being laid off.

Am so grateful for all your advice.
posted by amoeba to Work & Money (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have the staff that are being laid off been given the chance to show they have the new needed skills?
Health insurance is a big issue, best way to screw over someone is to make it seem there is going to be a quiet period where they can take time for Dr. appointments, then fire them before they can go.
posted by Sophont at 9:15 AM on May 22, 2015

This situation is absolutely no good. It is going to leave bad morale Even if you handle it perfectly. There isn't anyway to train the folks you already have hired?

I think that is the most important question to answer and explain to all employees.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:16 AM on May 22, 2015 [20 favorites]

I can't imagine there's anything you can do to make the people left behind feel secure. Laying off half the team to bring on "new skills for a new era" demonstrates that the company views its existing employees as disposable, and 'change in the business model' so profound that such turnover is required is evidence that management doesn't really know what it's doing. There aren't magic words to make employees overlook the obvious.
posted by jon1270 at 9:20 AM on May 22, 2015 [35 favorites]

Response by poster: There has been three months of training and guidance for the existing staff and a long period of notice where we said — here are the new rules, here's the new training, and here's how we're going to judge you going forward.

We have given them tons of weekly education, retreats, training and clear guidance on how to be successful. Half the staff has been amazing with this and fully transitioned into the new model. The people facing layoffs have resisted the training and are struggling with the new model.

The decision about the layoffs have already been made from higher up. My question is not if we can offer these people more training — but about how to do this hard thing as well as possible.

Not looking for judgment here (the business model changed because of factors outside of our control), but constructive suggestions on how to do this with minimum pain.
posted by amoeba at 9:21 AM on May 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Laying people off is like breaking up with them; there isn't a secret way to do it that will make it pleasant for them, there is only deciding between degrees of unpleasantness. Be professional about it, but most of all, be prompt. If you can, lay them off monday.

Since you're laying off half the team, you're either going to meet with everyone individually (all 20 people, not just the 10 being laid off) for fifteen minutes each all in a row, or you're going to need to do two meetings back to back where you talk to people in groups. People will tell you different things about which is worse, but neither is going to be good, so it doesn't really matter, frankly. If you were laying people off for individual performance or in some way where they could negotiate or ask questions or whatever, it might be more important to talk to them individually, but basically you're giving the same lines to everyone being laid off so if it's easier to talk to them in a group, go for it. That said, if you talk to them in a group now, you of course need to have open office hours for people being laid off right after that meeting, and you need to talk individually to everyone who's staying later on (give them a couple days to process, probably).

Once you've laid people off, don't hire anyone new for a bit. You're resetting your entire team culture when you lay off this many people, so think really carefully about what you want the new thing to look like. Have an all-team meeting once all the laid-off people are gone and reemphasize that they are staying and not in danger of being laid off. Talk about the new vision and how they fit into it so they understand what the deal is (but this should just be re-emphasizing what you talked to them about individually earlier). Then start gradually bringing new people on. Tell the new people what the deal is, but that you're confident they're the right fit for this new job. It's going to take time for them to assimilate, and you are seriously going to choke if you just double the team size with new people who don't know what they're doing. Be really watchful for old folks/new folks cliques forming; do your best to assign people to work together in ways that bring the new people on.

Mostly it's a matter of time. Things are going to be weird for six months and there's nothing you can do to get around that, but that doesn't mean you don't have control over whether this is a success or not.
posted by inkyz at 9:28 AM on May 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

I was laid off 5 years ago, and it was a complete shock.

-- My company laid people off one by one in brief meetings through the morning. They were cutting 15% of their workforce, so you can imagine how long and tortuous that morning was. Try to minimize the time people are sitting around waiting for the axe to fall.
-- HR met with us immediately to discuss our packages and all paperwork was ready for us to take home and read, including assurances that our unemployment wouldn't be challenged. That was very helpful.
-- Our severance was generous -- 2 weeks for every year we'd worked there and all of our accrued vacation. That nest egg went a long way toward reassuring me that I could make it through unemployment, and there was no nickel-and-diming about what laid-off employees should walk away with.
-- The company arranged a 2-day seminar on getting us ready for job searches. The guy running it gave excellent advice on revising our resumes, talking about our layoff, using our network effectively. I had a new job within 2 months, and I attribute it to that seminar giving me confidence and concrete plans to start a job search.
-- We were given time to clean out our desks with a security guard standing by, but then we were also allowed to come back and gather anything that we couldn't carry that day. Someone stayed after hours so we could come back, and it was nice not to have to face my former coworkers again.

There's bound to be some bad feelings after this, but if you're open about the process and good to the staff that you're laying off, you can minimize the effects those feelings have on your team.
posted by gladly at 9:31 AM on May 22, 2015 [29 favorites]

Also, do it on a Friday and don't bring in their replacements until after. Expecting an involuntarily departing employee to train their replacement on something you thought they were so incompetent on enough to warrant a firing is obnoxious.
posted by asockpuppet at 9:38 AM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If their health insurance is going to run through the end of the last month they work, it would be a kindness to wait until early June to lay them off, rather than late May.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:39 AM on May 22, 2015 [26 favorites]

Do they know they haven't been taking well to the new skills training? If you think of this like a break up, it's much harder to process if you're blindsided by it and don't see it coming because you think things are going well.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:45 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

In terms of mechanism, one way I have seen this done is to have two simultaneous team meetings. Have a peer or superior or etc start the "good news" one while you handle the "bad news" one. This can create a suspicious invite but you have more control over messaging to both parties without creating that interim dead period where people always assume the worst.
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:48 AM on May 22, 2015

Move as fast as possible. Don't let some random HR mix up occur before you can let someone know they are being laid off. Make 1000% sure of who is on what list (If there is a literal list, triple and quadruple check it before sending out invites.)

If you do the two meetings thing send the invite at 9am for noon (when most people eat lunch). 3 hours of panic as opposed to several days. Have kleenex in the both meeting rooms. Someone always cries. Afterward, send an email around to the whole company with your thoughts.

Be honest, but concise. They don't want to hear about your feelings at length but hearing that you are sorry does help. Some people are always blindsided, just accept that this will be tough. Don't force any false camaraderie on the remaining folks, acknowledge that its hard and scary, but that you think it's the right move. Give them time to process. Give them the rest of the day off. Meet with them one on one the following week if possible. Make sure they buy the justification and see their own opportunity. Wait at least 7 days before bringing on new hires. Don't wait too long though. Training new hires gives them something positive to do.

Retention bonuses for the best remaining folks can help too. Good luck.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:56 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've done this before, and it sucks. I'm sorry. There's a lot of good advice above, but a few more things:

- arrange to meet with departing employees in the most private and sound-proof rooms available.

- ensure your off-boarding plan is buttoned up and well coordinated across IT and such.

- make sure you only have to make one cut. One deep cut hurts less than two medium cuts. 14 today is better than 10 today and 4 in a quarter.

- prepare two talks for those who remain. One to give on the day of the layoffs, talking about how hard the decision was, how much those employees mattered, and making clear that this was important but not trivial. A second for the next day, outlining what needs to happen next, and how you're going to win.

- be ready to deal with an applicant pool who knows there were layoffs. When I did this, despite being a relatively small company, our layoffs got a write-up, and layoffs were a Google autocomplete for a while.

- take care of yourself. this sucks, and I'm sorry you have to do it.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 10:39 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Remember: if you screw the departing staff, everyone left behind will immediately start thinking about how to jump ship before you get a chance to screw them as well.

They will not believe your claims to the contrary; treat the departing staff poorly and most of those who remain will assume you're just biding your time until you can treat them poorly as well.

Oh, and you can just assume people will talk about their severance so you may as well be up front about it to everyone. Putting an NDA in there is cute, but won't amount to a hill of beans except in the most extreme cases.
posted by aramaic at 10:40 AM on May 22, 2015 [10 favorites]

I have been laid off twice and my husband twice as well. Things our former employers did well:

1) Letting me go home for the day immediately after receiving the bad news so I had time and space to process, plan, and cry in private.
2) Along with severance (two weeks per year of employment is about right), paying for several weeks of services at a career transition firm like Lee Hecht Harrison or similar (they help with resume review, networking, interview prep, etc.).
3) If there was a transition period between receiving the news and my last day, giving me the A-OK to job hunt for my next position on company time. Which of course I was doing anyway because, you know, FUCK THEM (ahem) but it was nice to know that I didn't have to hide it.
4) No security guard standing over me as I cleaned out my desk and exited the building. Layoffs rob people of all their dignity and this particular part is just the cherry on the shit sundae if you ask me.

Things they did NOT do well:

1) Don't make them train their replacements.
2) Save the "Person X is no longer with Company Y" emails for AFTER their work email access has been shut off. For some reason, this in particular feels like a huge punch in the face.
3) Severance should include a few more weeks of health insurance if at all possible so they can restock prescriptions, get that last appointment in, etc. Finding out that our health insurance had been shut off effective immediately was so, so much more harsh than the loss of the job that provided it.
4) Goodbye lunches and parties are inappropriate and unwanted in this situation, but privately reaching out to departing employees with a sincere email is not at all out of place. It's nice to know that someone will indeed miss you and thinks your work has value even when the company's actions are saying otherwise. When I lost my last job, not one single person from my close-knit (or so I thought...) team reached out to me at all afterwards. No sorry, or we'll miss you, or send me your resume to pass around, or even good luck, at a place I worked at for FIVE YEARS, and I was utterly shocked and devastated by it.
posted by anderjen at 10:47 AM on May 22, 2015 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Write up references for each person detailing anything good about them. Prompt, diligent, willing to help others - be thorough in finding good things to say. Give them the letter, and keep it on file. Don't lie, just be as positive as possible. The letter should also state their dates of employment, useful when they apply for other jobs. prepare info about any resources available to them for job hunting. Prepare a sheet wiht info- you'll tell them when you meet, but it's helpful to have it written. Check with your state, some employers must provide certain benefits when doing layoffs. You have to pay unused vacation, can you give employees nay credit for unused sick time? Check on unemployment rules. My employer took a long time to pay my severance and accrued vaca., it cost me a month of unemployment.
posted by theora55 at 10:55 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some of the people you are cutting loose want to go, whether they know it consciously or not. Your organization was clear, this is the direction we are heading, these are the skills we want you to grab hold of. Exactly half of your people saw the vision, and saw the writing on the wall, too. Those who balked and squawked about the changes, they wanted out. Those who simply couldn't grasp the new tools are in a worse place, psychically, than those who simply wouldn't grasp the new tools.

That said, I'd bet that those who display the most anger are those who wanted out. Those who couldn't catch on know it, and they'll feel like they're not good enough, etc. And they aren't good enough, not for the role that you want them in, but their next gig might be a much better fit for them.

I was laid off at a bank -- a downsizing, four data centers to two -- and they were remarkably generous, a goodly chunk of change and then a months pay for every year you'd spent there. They set us up with one of those classes to help us learn to get another job but it was totally Mickey Mouse jive, nothing you couldn't find in any number of books or today on youtube. I guess it was A Good Thing to spend time with my co-workers who'd also been cut but really, it was just a bunch of jive, a bunch of silly handouts to throw away. Everybody knows how to make a resume, or has a friend that does, everybody knows how to network, and if they don't they damn sure know about youtube, where they'll find 16,487,439 videos explaining it, step by step. Rather than setting that up with some company, spend that money on giving them a few more bucks on their way out the door.

I really like the idea of two separate meetings, starting at the same time. But get those that are getting cut loose out of the building before you open the door to let your keepers back into the office. As a kindness, you could give each of the people getting cut loose a large but inexpensive pack or even a grocery sack, to take their things home. But what they can't get today, I really liked what was said upthread -- set up a time after hours for each of them to come pick up any personal belongings which they couldn't get on The Big Day.

Last. I don't think you need a three hour meeting with those you are laying off. Be honest, clear, no attacks, not even anything about how they didn't change their course when that was asked of them. Just say that "We are heading into a different direction, and we have decided that to make this transition we are going to let you go." Make sure they know that this is not a question/answer time, no debating, it's a done deal. Then explain to them any severance package, give them their bag to go to their desk and get their gear, and out the door they go. Oh, and when you have them in that meeting, you have your IT guy turn off access to anything company related on their computer.

You're a good person. You're doing this right. There are people who actually dig firing people -- you don't. Everybody wants to be a manager. But then when they become a manager, they find out it entails things like this. You're finding strengths you didn't know you had, or at least improving them. You're doing it right.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:18 AM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have been through a few layoffs, most recently as a manager of a team that was not affected. I'm a little surprised to hear you have any options about how to handle this in terms of timing and hiring. One thing that I did with my team (all people who survived) was to have a meeting with them about 2 days later to address any lingering questions. This allowed me to clear up a few false rumors, say a few basic platitudes and express empathy, and be a bit frank and upfront with my team overall.

Also, this may seem abundantly obvious, but if your laid-off folks gather for some drinks somewhere, you should not show up if you are management. This happened once when a whole swath of us were laid off, it was incredibly bizarre and in bad taste.

Good luck.
posted by vunder at 11:47 AM on May 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do it quickly. I wouldn't let it languish. If you can relieve these people of their duties immediately so they can start spending their time on updating their resume, but still pay them for some time, that is ideal. Hopefully they can continue to be paid for some time as a buffer -- every place I've worked at has given at least two weeks pay, but sometimes as much as like six weeks. Make sure people know they are entitled to file for unemployment benefits after their final paycheck/severance as well.

After it is done, you need to announce it to everyone that the organization is transitioning -- otherwise, it will just be passed through gossip. Tell everyone how many people are leaving and why, and whether they can expect more changes at the organization. Don't name names of the fired people -- let them do it themselves. Your organization could even set an all-staff meeting and allow employees to submit anonymous questions beforehand for you to answer. The most common question you will get is "Are more layoffs coming?" But employees want to feel heard and they want their questions answered. At the end of the meeting, let everyone know that if there are any additional questions, they can stop by your office or email you anytime.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:09 PM on May 22, 2015

Consider asking whoever made the actual decision to be offsite during the absolute worst parts of the process. Especially in a smallish company where the gossip is already flowing, the employees already know who signed off on it. And no matter how the decisionmaker(s) behave, it's going to be read unfavorably by at least some people. (As will not being there, but at least there's less potential for direct confrontation.)
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:00 PM on May 22, 2015

Best answer: I think that is the most important question to answer and explain to all employees.

I work at a very small company that recently had layoffs (and then hired a couple expensive people!) because of a business plan change and outside pressure. DEFINITELY explain the layoffs to remaining employees afterwards, give them a chance to ask questions, answer as honestly as possible, and make it CLEAR that the remaining employees' jobs are secure and the company isn't "in trouble".
posted by maryr at 1:44 PM on May 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you going to call this a "layoff"? Because if a company let me go calling it that and then turned around and hired an equal number of replacements I would call that being fired. Sure, it's for a reason - missing skills and no signs of acquiring them - but to me that's not a "layoff". It would also make me uneasy if a coworker was "laid off" and then my boss hired a replacement. Do they think I'm stupid?
posted by R343L at 7:49 PM on May 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think the layoff/firing is well-covered. My talking point on that would be around performance management for remaining employees. You must be committed to giving clear, unambiguous performance feedback on a regular basis to those who remain so that a surprise situation due to lack of skills never happens again. If you do not have regular 1:1s scheduled, schedule them now. If you do not have formal performance management as part of your HR function, introduce some sort of process.

Regarding hiring. Remember that on boarding is a major cost and productivity in your team will already be at a low due to the layoff. Bringing 10 people at once is almost guaranteed to drive productivity to zero. You can bring maybe two at a time 2-4 weeks apart if you are doing knowledge work. Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to onboard.

In addition, I suggest waiting a week if you can before bringing on any new staff. I started a new staff member on the same day I laid off another staffer. The new staff member was bugged out and didn't sleep for two days. He also stayed long enough to tell me about it, so it's not a complete fail, but I would avoid at all cost.

For the new staff, if they have not yet accepted the offer please advise them of the layoff in advance. Allow them to self-select out as part of the interview process. You do not want to hire people that are freaked out by layoffs. This kind of honesty has worked well for me - I have hired two candidates into a company that is actively in layoffs. It says a lot about you as a manager if you are able to be up front on this one.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:59 PM on May 22, 2015

You know those cards you give someone who is leaving work?
Get those for each person leaving, and offer them to the people staying to sign. It shows the people staying that even if this directive came from higher up, you GAF for your team.
It can help the people being let go to feel more closure, more like it is a normal leaving work situation.
posted by Elysum at 2:11 AM on May 23, 2015

I've done this, in an organisation that did it a lot. Here's what I think works best:

1) First do basic prep. You will need to make some decisions, probably with support from an employment lawyer to ensure you don't accidentally break the law. When do you want their people's last day to be. Do you want them to work through a notice period, or wrap up and go home immediately. Do you want to offer severance, and if so will you require them to sign a confidentiality or non-disparagement agreement in exchange. Are you going to cut off their access to email and internal systems immediately, or not. When will they get their final paycheque. What happens to their health coverage. Do they need to return company equipment such as phones or laptops. Will you give references. What about outplacement counselling. Etc. In the prep period you will also need to make a bunch of documents, some of which will require lawyers. You will need severance agreements. You should probably draft a formal announcement so it's ready to go.

2) Once you are prepped, call a meeting with everybody who is leaving. Do this as soon as you can be ready, because rumours suck and it's unkind to let them fester. Clear your schedule for the entire day, and let the meeting last as long as it needs to, but it will likely be short -- maybe 15-25 minutes. Have at least one other person with you, ideally HR. Do not do a big preamble: try to cut to the chase within a few sentences. Tell the people leaving that you're sorry and you wish the company could have kept them. Lay out the answers to the questions above, and take any more questions they have. It is kind to let them go home for the rest of the day, even if you expect them to work through a notice period afterwards. But, keep your own schedule and HR's clear for the rest of the day, and tell people you are accessible if they want to have a 1:1 conversation with you and/or HR. Tell them HR is ready and willing to meet with them that same day, or in coming days: whatever works for them. It is kind if you can have the office space cleared out (meaning, other staff somewhere else) when the laid-off people emerge from the meeting.

3) Immediately after the meeting, send an announcement to your department saying what just happened. "I'm sorry to tell you that today we laid off a number of your colleagues." Name them in the announcement. (Because people will be guessing and speculating and counting.) Say that you regret that it was necessary, and that you and the company wish them the best. Say how long they'll be around. Have a meeting with all the people you are retaining, either that same day or the next day, and answer all their questions. It's especially important to tell them there will be no additional layoffs. The best thing you can do for morale at this point is treat the departing people respectfully and generously. Make it implicitly clear that if people feel sad or go out to mourn over drinks, you don't disapprove -- they will do it anyway, and if they feel they have to hide it they'll resent you.

Definitely don't bring in the new people until the departing people have gone.

Here's some other stuff:

* Rookie/weak managers sometimes let HR or the lawyers bully them into being too risk-averse. Don't let yourself get pushed into e.g. having security visibly present, unless you think it's necessary. Make your own decisions and don't humiliate people in avoidable ways.
* When you're doing the layoff, be serious and controlled. Some managers try to defuse the tension with weird jokes or self-deprecating comments. That's embarrassing: don't do it.
* It's basic kindness to say you feel bad, but it's self-indulgent (and a common rookie mistake) to rattle on about how you tossed and turned all night. This is about them, not you.
* Don't rehash the past. Don't criticise their work or talk about how things might've turned out differently.
* Some managers handle themselves fine during the actual layoff, but then make mistakes afterwards. People will be watching you all day, so stay sober. No explosions of laughter from the conference room, no snark or bitching of any kind, no chit-chat about your awesome dinner plans.
* You are probably going to feel sorry for yourself all day -- which is fair, firing people sucks. But you should try to hide it, because it's unseemly. Your family and friends can console you later, but keep it out of work.

Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 3:51 AM on May 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Have boxes available for people to put their stuff in.
If you decide to have someone else pack people's desks up and courier it, offer the termed employee an off-hours time (with appropriate security/staff) to come get anything missed. I've lost many personal items when forced to accept whatever they deemed "personal".

There will be trust problems for the remaining staff - just be aware of that going forward.
posted by ApathyGirl at 1:05 PM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Offer cabs (paid by the company of course) immediately so any staff that want to leave but don't have transportation (relying on busing, a ride, or, worst of all, a carpool with someone NOT fired) can go grieve in private. If you can let them keep their email access/computer access for one day it would be a kindness (yes, it is supposed to be for professional use only but it is impossible to keep it entirely seperate).
posted by saucysault at 7:55 PM on May 23, 2015

When I was laid off, what bothered me the most was that in the meeting there was an HR person sitting there closely watching me, presumably to see how I reacted and if I said anything they wanted to take note of. I didn't really care about the job -- I got another one the next day -- and I resented being observed like that.

I also resented the implications behind being escorted out of the building, but I suppose there's no way around that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:15 AM on May 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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