How to Manage Coronavirus Layoffs with Compassion

Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch We’ve made our coronavirus coverage free for all readers. To get all of HBR’s content delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Alert newsletter. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, the damage to the job market looks likely to be deep and long lasting. Managers are not only…

How to Manage Coronavirus Layoffs with Compassion

Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

We’ve made our coronavirus coverage free for all readers. To get all of HBR’s content delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Daily Alert newsletter.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, the damage to the job market looks likely to be deep and long lasting. Managers are not only dealing with the stress and sadness of having to let go of a large number of their workers, many of them are also feeling underlying anxiety about their own positions. Even if laying off employees is the only way to keep the organization running, how do you handle your feelings of guilt and sadness? How should you deliver the news when you can’t meet face-to-face? What should you say to your employees who remain? And what can you do to manage fear about your own future?
What the Experts Say
Laying off employees is difficult in normal times; but amidst the Covid-19 global health crisis, the task is “emotionally and cognitively overwhelming,” according to Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School. “This experience for most of us is unfathomable,” he says. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty and people’s minds are whirring.” As a manager charged with dismissing a wide swath of employees, “you’re pulled in different directions: Your heart goes out to people, but you have a responsibility to the organization.” That tension is magnified when you’re also worried about your own fate, says Kenneth Freeman, Dean Emeritus at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “You’re human and you’re going to have a lot of those 2 AM. moments,” he says. But the key is to try as best you can to separate your personal worries from the task at hand. “In your role as a manager, you need to be there for your people.” Here are some recommendations.
Leaders: Reflect on whether layoffs are needed
If you’re the one making the decisions about layoffs, Margolis recommends asking yourself one question: is downsizing your workforce truly necessary? The impulse to cut costs is understandable, but “this is not a periodic recession.” Rather, this pandemic represents “an exceptional historic moment that will end up being pivotal for the economy and for people’s communities, careers, and lives,” and it might “warrant a different response.” As a leader, you need to spark “resourceful, creative thinking about how your organization can save as many jobs as possible.” Freeman suggests gathering your management team and asking, “Can we make sacrifices elsewhere? What are our other options to reduce costs?” Your goal is to think broadly about how you distribute the widespread negative consequences of Covid-19. “Laying off people should be the last resort,” he says. And if you must do layoffs, make every effort to “avoid multiple rounds” of cuts.
Gather information
If you decide layoffs are necessary or others have made that decision for you, then make sure you’re prepared before you reach out to the affected employees. Figure out “how and when you will deliver the news to your employees on an individual basis” and what the message will consist of, says Freeman. People are likely going to have a lot of questions about the timing, their benefits, and severance. These conversations may need to happen fast, but you’ll have a better chance of easing your own and the employee’s anxiety if you can provide them with answers about what happens next. Reach out to HR, your legal department, and any other senior leaders who might be able to help you prepare answers to questions such as “When will I get my last paycheck?” and “What happens to my 401K?”
Understand your limitations
Even if you’ve presided over layoffs in the past, overseeing them during the coronavirus outbreak will be different for one key reason: they won’t take place in person because of social distancing measures. What’s more, you need to have a highly private conversation at a time when privacy is difficult to achieve. “We all have families under foot and lots of things going on,” says Margolis. He suggests asking your employee, “Is there a time when I can get 15 minutes of your full attention?” Be forewarned: you may get pushback. They may anticipate what’s coming and “some people aren’t going to have the psychological wherewithal to deal with it,” he says. In this case, he recommends saying something like, “Can you let me know when you’re ready to have this conversation so I can tell you the next steps?”
Set the right tone
Because you will deliver the message remotely, Freeman says that you must take extra care to break the news “with empathy and compassion.” Your aim is to “treat people with dignity, fairness, and respect.” Even though you may worry that you, too, might get laid-off, this particular termination is not about you. “This is not a time for you to take up space,” says Margolis. Don’t succumb to your insecurities by saying something like, “This is really hard for me.” At the same time, don’t “totally detach from your humanity” so that you “become a mechanical robot.” Instead, find a way “to engage your emotion” and cultivate a “calm and low-key” manner. Ideally, you will have the conversation via video link so that you can “make eye contact” with the other person. If the conversation takes place on the phone, free yourself of all distractions. “Be fully present and listen.”
Be direct and human
Your message should be “clear, concise, and unequivocal,” says Margolis. For instance, “I’m sorry, but at end of next week we are terminating your job.” Imparting an “expeditious, direct me
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