Should I refuse to give the news about layoffs to my staff?
March 19, 2018 6:21 PM   Subscribe

OK, I lead a very small group in a very big company. I was told last week that most of my group will be laid off (not me.) We are tight - we've worked together in a very different way than the rest of the company, and it is going to be brutal. I honestly believe the layoffs are unfair, but they are what they are. Moreover, the HR person won't let me inform people (either individually or as a group) in any way but the most legalese, robotic form. I'm not even allowed to answer questions, I have to defer them to the HR person. I guess I understand that, but it isn't my style. I could do it, of course, but.. I've been given the choice. Either I can do the layoffs myself with the HR person present, sticking to the script - or I can have my boss, who decided on the layoffs, do it.

I'm torn. I love my team, and I feel like they should hear the news from me. On the other hand, I will not be allowed to deliver the message with any empathy, and I feel it is a reflection of the nastiness of the layoffs themselves, and my boss is willing to do the announcement if I don't want to.

I do believe that on some level, allowing my boss to do it will reflect on me negatively, but for the purposes of this question, that's not that important to me.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You need to do it. People will understand you are limited in what you can say due to HR. You can even say that to them.

What they won't understand is you not wanting to give them the bad news.
posted by JPD at 6:28 PM on March 19, 2018 [58 favorites]

I was one of your employees last year.

Do it yourself, use the script. Your presence, and your body language will speak multitudes.

I have a better job now. It was for the best. But I did appreciate being laid off by somebody who knew me.
posted by General Malaise at 6:29 PM on March 19, 2018 [18 favorites]

Also, having been laid off thrice in my career, and having been given the same talk all three times, I predict one of the things you'll be able to say is that you'd be very happy to give a reference. That means way more coming from you than your supervisor.
posted by General Malaise at 6:35 PM on March 19, 2018 [17 favorites]

I still resent the guy who recruited and hired me, managed me, then wussed out of giving me the layoff news himself and had an HR girl do it. Do it yourself.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:41 PM on March 19, 2018 [6 favorites]

Do it yourself, use your body language to tell the story, and at least pointedly remind them that you're on LinkedIn if you're not already connected to them, so you can find them and talk to them later. Or connect to them all now.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:41 PM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Once upon a time, I had the wussy boss, who delegated this task to me. Since he did the hiring, I thought it only fair that he did the firing also, but I wasn't given your choice. I think I would have been grateful for the presence of an HR person during the 'bad news' interview.
posted by Rash at 7:42 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm usually in favor of getting bad news from the person who cares most. But if you're literally not allowed to say anything but a script...I don't know why you'd put yourself through that. Is it possible for your boss to deliver the news to the group, and then for you to schedule one-on-one meetings with each member of the team to have the real conversation about how you feel, how they feel, and how you can help them? How long will they be sticking around after the news is delivered?
posted by equipoise at 8:47 PM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Do it, this is what leadership is. You owe it to your team, they will understand your limitations, and if they don't - that's also part of being a leader.
posted by smoke at 9:01 PM on March 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

If it were happening to you, which would make it slightly less bad?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:45 PM on March 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is there a literal script? Or have you been given super strict guidelines about what you can and cannot say? If it’s the latter, then I’d sit down and think about how you can write a script for yourself and pack as much empathy in as possible within the guidelines, including a lot of the great advice here, like offering to be a reference.

If you were literally given a script, could you sit down with the HR rep and your boss, go through it, and see if there are places you can make slight changes to make it more empathetic? I would frame it as “I think it’s important I deliver this news, but this script doesn’t feel comfortable to me. Here are some specific things I would like to change, which of these can be changed?”

Of course, you may strike out and be stuck with the original dilemma. I think you should still be the one to deliver the news. I think it will mean a lot even if it’s awkward and inauthentic.
posted by lunasol at 10:19 PM on March 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Your staff will understand and not hold any grudges if you do it yourself. If you literally read the script they will also understand that you had no choice.

If you are not present, they will resent you, and will hold this against you.

Even if you cannot verge from the wording of the script, the inevitable emotion that you will read the script with will convey how you feel about it.

The last time I was laid off the only person I felt sorry for was my boss (who was with the HR person) that was laying me off. If my boss had not been present I would have been pretty upset.

If you can get everyone's contact information (discretely, without asking them ideally) and contact them privately after they've been laid off and bring them out to a bar for a drink afterward, it might be greatly appreciated. Folks want to debrief after a stressful event like that.

I'm sorry for both you and your team; you'll all get through these hard times.
posted by el io at 12:01 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Personally, when my bosses decided to layoff one of my people, I thought it was bullshit so I made them fire her. Why should I be put in that horrible position when it wasn't my decision? I was so mad at my bosses for it. So I made sure I wasn't there because I didn't want to have to deal with it. I tried to talk to her about it afterward, but she ignored me and I got the sense she seemed to blame me. I don't know if it's because I wasn't there when she was laid off and I messaged her afterward. Maybe she assumed something. Not sure what I could've done differently, but maybe she merely "liked" me when I was her boss, but after I wasn't her boss, she didn't need to like me anymore so she didn't. Not sure. Then I sort of resented that she didn't wanted to talk to me anymore afterward - I wanted to try to help her and she rebuffed me when I thought we were friendly. So, it's a crappy situation. I would probably think about what's best for you because, in all likelihood, there's nothing you can do to make it better, to be honest.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:28 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Do it yourself. You owe them that. Read the bullshit script with the HR drone.

And then, when the HR drone is gone, have another meeting where you give them the straight story and answer all their questions honestly.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:48 AM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Do it yourself. We still talk about the managers/directors that wussed out during layoffs. They will never make up the respect lost.
posted by ReiFlinx at 2:48 AM on March 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm unclear what "lead" means here—if you act as the line manager for these employees, then you should do it. But if you are something like a "team leader" without management authority then your boss should do it.
posted by grouse at 4:09 AM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

The GM of the newspaper I worked at had his unpaid furlough the week dozens of people were laid off. He knew weeks in advance and still chose to not be there and claimed that he couldn't switch his furlough. (Guess what? He was the boss. He could have switched weeks.) The loss of respect for him was huge, and 9 years later his lack of leadership is still discussed.

You need to do this. They'll understand you have a script.
posted by kimberussell at 4:23 AM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

Say it immediately in an email. Get it over with. Have a meeting about it, too.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:06 AM on March 20, 2018

Yes. You should do it. You can start off with, "This has come from above and I felt you would rather hear it from me. Please hold any questions for _HR REP_."
Make sure there are tissues.
posted by plinth at 5:18 AM on March 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

When I got laid off, one of the co-presidents did it (and not my manager). He also mis-pronounced my name. This was not a good look.

I am sure that they learned in their B.A. classes to take ownership of the decision or something. I would have preferred hearing it from my guy, not from the president who I already didn't respect very much.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:58 AM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

(This is a terrible situation, and it is to your credit that you are being humane. I have heard it said that a lot of adulthood is "you have to be ready to shoot your own dog," and it's one of the things that made me hold back from being a manager for a long time. I haven't yet had to let anyone go, and I dread it. I am sorry about this whole thing coming down on you.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:00 AM on March 20, 2018

Absolutely agree that you should do this. I was laid off and my direct manager didn't even come to the meeting and it was a very classless layoff and I will never work with them again. I have also advised others against working with them for other reasons, but it was the nature of the layoff (which was coming for ages and did not have to be so nuts) which really gave me incentive to be frank.

I also have both laid off and fired staff and it sucks. I definitely have more insight now. The thing is, a layoff is a blow, and I think we remember pretty well who is willing to be present (physically present, emotionally present) and who isn't. Your presence isn't about sanctioning the actions of your company (your continued choice to be employed there does that), it's about showing up for the people whose time and effort you have valued.

I agree that you can deliver the message with body language and voice, and if you can preface the script without blowing your career you could start with something like "we've worked together a while and achieved a lot and I am sorry to have to tell you..." or "I've loved working with you and I'm sorry to tell you..."
posted by warriorqueen at 7:27 AM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Do it yourself, and if the urge hits you to cry, don't fight it too hard.
posted by potrzebie at 7:55 AM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do it. Follow the script.

Then take everyone out for a drink.
posted by adamrice at 8:38 AM on March 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Shouldn't the one who passes the sentence swing the sword? You dd not do the former - why should they make you do the latter, unless you can apply the level of mercy you wish to apply?
posted by scolbath at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2018

Moreover, the HR person won't let me inform people (either individually or as a group) in any way but the most legalese, robotic form.

A possible option, assuming that you know it won't backfire on your own job, is that you could wrap the "robotic" script in an explanation that you are being required to do this: e.g., at a meeting, "I need to give you some important news now, and the format of that news has been dictated in the following form: ( ... robotic script ... )".
posted by theorique at 11:07 AM on March 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Last time I got laid off, my manager, who wasn't really close to us, traveled to give us the news. I appreciated that and made it easy for him. Show empathy anyway, even if just, I'm sorry this is happening. Go out of your way to find everyone's personal emails and make sure they know they will get good references. Lobby for severance pay and any possible help for your staff. Your HR and manager are dicks, but you know that. I'm sorry this is happening to you, but I think you will be happier delivering the news yourself.
posted by theora55 at 11:30 AM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree that this is part of being a leader-- as management, you often have to enforce things you didn't come up with and don't endorse. Be strong for your people, be there for them. Don't make them hear huge bad news from somebody who doesn't give a shit about them. That's like having the mistress break the news of a divorce to the husband's kids, or something. It's more respectful if you say it, and they'll respect you more.

If you have HR sitting in the corner and specific wording you have to use, it will be crystal clear that this is not your doing, if that's your concern. You can telegraph empathy with your eyes, your tone. You can take them out for a drink, you can let them vent later.

As an employee I'd need my boss to say it to my face, and if she weren't there I would assume she didn't care.
posted by kapers at 12:04 PM on March 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you do speak to them on your own terms later about how awful this is, don't make it about you. Of course this is hard for you--and you should talk and vent about that with someone outside the company--but it's harder for them, so they shouldn't have to care how hard it is for you.

I'm normally a crier and I think it's okay to have emotions at work, but this is one time I would encourage a bit of a stiff upper lip if possible. These folks are losing their jobs and you're keeping yours, so don't pull focus; the sympathy should flow outward.
posted by kapers at 12:43 PM on March 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

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