How do I do the layoff part of managing?
September 1, 2017 10:18 PM   Subscribe

I've been managing my team for about 18 months now. At the moment, I have two FTEs and two contractors. Decisions have been made above my head for financial (not performance) reasons to end the two contracts. I have to give them two weeks notice tomorrow. How do I have that conversation?

I'm still a fairly new manager - this is my first managerial role. I've gotten better at giving feedback, etc., but this decision has nothing to do with them or their performance. I also advocated fairly hard against it and think it's a bad decision for business reasons, but the decision wasn't up to me.

When I talk to them (it will be separately, not together) tomorrow, how much am I "allowed" to commiserate? Or tell them that I disagree? I'm not looking for legal answers here (I have to meet with people who do the legal part of this before I do this, so those questions will be answered), but more professional norms ones. I work for a small division (~100 people) of a Very Large Company, if that makes any difference.

It's going to be pretty much a blindside - it even was for me; discussions went from "well we have the budget for them at least through the end of the year" over the past few months to "we're probably going to have to lay them off" yesterday to "the decision has been made" today, and I think that sucks, but it's a done deal at this point.

Anyone who's been on either side of a layoff like this, what can I say as a manager tomorrow and do as a manager in their severance period to make it as non-terrible as possible? I will obviously offer to be a glowing reference for them for any other positions, and do some networking for them myself if that would be helpful, but is there anything else?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've had to manage quite a few layoffs, and the key, in my experience, is to be honest without being more forthcoming about the business decision than is actually relevant to their next steps, and to be empathetic without making this about how it makes you feel. What I mean by this is that you should let them know up front that you have bad news. Don't draw that part out. Let them know that this is not a reflection on their performance, but the result of a business decision completely unrelated to their work.

I don't recommend that you spend any time discussing whether you were involved in the decision or agree with it. Especially since there will probably be an HR representative in the room with you. Your company may also place limits on whether or not they allow you to make references. This is something I always offered to do anyway, given the opportunity, but you should be aware that some companies specifically tell managers that they are not allowed to do so; if that is your company's position, you may have a hard decision to make on that score.

The most important thing to remember is that they need information from you. Next steps. Letting them know that it wasn't their fault is good, but beyond that, try to resist spending too much time commiserating with them, especially at first. It doesn't hurt to let them understand that you are genuinely sorry that they will be moving on, since that's true. And that you hope to have an opportunity to work together again (but only if that's 100% genuine, and make clear that you aren't in a position to promise them future work). It will be helpful to them if they feel that they can still trust you, as they will undoubtedly have follow-up questions, and in any case you will need to try to keep them focussed for the remaining two weeks.

As hard as this is, there are actually few times when the quality of a manager is more important than during a layoff. Doing this with empathy will absolutely help them, but don't confuse the hurt you're feeling with what their needs are. They still need you to be a manager, maybe now more than ever. Be appropriately supportive, but don't try to make yourself feel better (right now).

And don't forget the part where you still have to work there when they're gone. If you openly sympathize too much in front of HR or coworkers, that may be viewed as insubordination.

Good luck. For what it's worth, I'm still friendly with people I was forced to lay off. So it can absolutely be done with humanity.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:25 AM on September 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

I also urge you to think very carefully about how you discuss this with your two FTEs. Don't overshare your disagreements with management, and don't overpromise that they are immune from future layoffs, since you can't honestly know if that's true. Reassure them to whatever extent you're comfortable, given that you can't know the future. What you need to do here is stress that you can only control the work you do, so it's more important than ever to stay focussed and demonstrate your value. Let them know that although there will always be things you aren't at liberty to disclose to them, that you will nonetheless never lie to them. And then don't.

Once again, good luck. If you want to reach out to me privately later to commiserate, feel free.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:43 AM on September 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Don't commiserate. It won't help. You are representing the company. It just makes you look pathetic and powerless.

Try to keep it brief. There's only so much you need to say. The more you say, the more it's either repetitive or unhelpful. If the meeting takes more than five minutes, it's just cutting into the employee's time to grieve.

Do emphasize that it's not performance-related. It makes a difference. Remind them that they've done good work. It doesn't seem like it, but it's really helpful for the ego. There's a big difference between "we're letting you go because you suck at your job" and "you do good work, but we have to let you go". The fired employee can still take pride in their work.

One of the most helpful things when I was laid off was that the owner of the company and my direct manager both wrote generic letters of recommendaction for me on company letterhead. It's one thing to say "I'll be a recommendation". Who knows what kind of recommendation you'll give? But having an actual letter of recommendation in hand is comforting. You can't take that back. Obviously you'll have to check with your company to see if this is something you can do.

And of course, if you can give s severance, that helps.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:37 AM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

**Not sure where you're from - this is US-centric advice**

Whoa whoa whoa... talk to HR about what they want you to say to your contractors. There's a piece of corporate risk called "co-employment" that basically means "treating a non-employee like an employee" and exposing your company to claims from those non-employees of back pay and benefits and such.

You are not their employer. You are simply directing their work.

Some companies have HR/Legal teams that are paranoid about co-employment and want to direct their hiring managers to keep their hands super clean in stuff like this.

By the way, most of the time I'd prefer the hiring manager contacts the supplier and informs them, with the supplier of the worker delivering the bad news. If these are independent contractors this gets a little more complicated and you'll have to do it yourself (or with the support of HR/Legal).

(For the record, I have global responsibility for a large company on contractor staffing programs, policy and process. I wouldn't want my hiring managers sourcing advice from the crowd like this. You have people internally who can help you and give you appropriate advice. Make good use of them.)
posted by GamblingBlues at 6:18 AM on September 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Agree with GamblingBlues - who contracted them? I'm in a very large organization, so maybe not the same, but I don't hire contractors and I don't terminate their contracts. I manage the people I'm given. (Or, in the case of contractors, manage my projects with the help of the people I'm given, subtle but important difference)

I mean, you're going to have to have an awkward conversation at some point. I think "I want you to know I have no complaints about your work quality and have enjoyed working with you. I'm sorry the contract has ended and we will miss you" is a good thing to say. I don't think they should be hearing this first from you though, it should be the business office that owns the contract, and that should be a facts-only discussion about the ending date, pay details, etc., not about reasons or performance or feelings.
posted by ctmf at 1:05 PM on September 2, 2017

Contractor here. I do work for people. I don't work for them, I work for an agency.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:56 PM on September 2, 2017

My closest friend's partner was just laid off unexpectedly from a contracting job. "I'm sorry, this decision came from Finance, and while I lobbied to keep your role, the decision has been made to terminate your contract. I will be issuing you with an official termination notice, and HR will want to see you. I'm very sorry. Do you have any questions?" was basically how it went, which is how it should go.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:21 PM on September 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Help us figure out how to not end up homeless by...   |   Let's give this another try, or how can I forget... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.