Many Bay Area counties have now extended the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order through May 31st. This new order affects employers and employees in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, as well as those in the city of Berkeley. The extension of the stay-at-home order will no doubt spark even more tough decisions for employers as they look to their workforces.
For the first time in their careers, many managers are having to terminate employees in the midst of uncertainty about their own positions. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight provides some recommendations on how to compassionately handle layoffs during this difficult time. She looks to the expert advice of Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Kenneth Freeman, Dean Emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
“Reflect on whether layoffs are needed”
Understandably, downsizing the workforce to reduce costs is generally the first response in this situation. However, the article suggests that, before downsizing, it is a good idea to gather the leaders in your organization to see if there are other more creative ways of saving money before laying off employees. If the decision still ends up at layoffs, it is best to “avoid multiple rounds” of layoffs.
Once the decision to reduce the workforce has been made, it is best to take some time to anticipate the questions your employees may have and gather the necessary information to answer them during the layoff conversation. You may want to contact HR and ask for basic information that you can relay to the employee regarding things such as benefits, severance, and their last paycheck.
“Understand your limitations”
Laying off an employee is delicate enough under normal circumstances, and COVID-19 has made that process even more difficult. It is important to understand the privacy limitations of a virtual conversation as well as the psychological state of your employees. Margolis suggests asking your employee to set aside time when they can commit their full attention to the conversation. He also advises to be prepared that this may trigger anxiety for the employee, as they may be anticipating being laid off.
“Set the right tone”
The article suggests that it is important to be fully present during this difficult conversation. Margolis emphasizes the importance breaking the news to your employee “with empathy and compassion.” While this interaction is undoubtedly difficult for you as the manager, focusing primarily on how it impacts the employee can help you communicate in an understanding and compassionate manner.
“Be direct and human”
Margolis emphasizes the need to perform a balancing act between being “clear, concise, and unequivocal” and compassionate when delivering the message to your employee. He also suggests acknowledging that this is not a performance-related decision, and that the current circumstances of the crisis make it even more difficult for those who would like to say goodbye to colleagues in person.
The manager’s role after the layoffs
The article continues to offer suggestions for how the person/people performing the layoffs should be transparent with their existing employees regarding the reason behind the layoffs. It also offers strategies to managers for coping with the difficulty of laying off employees—an added burden to the already heightened feelings of stress and uncertainty. Freeman suggests finding someone to talk to such as a peer or mentor who will understand what you are going through. Both Freeman and Margolis emphasize the importance of self-care during this very challenging and uncertain time.
Knight goes on to list two different real-life cases in which people have had to oversee layoffs. These cases offer even more insight into the difficult position of presiding over layoffs. You can read the entire article here.