Don’t Ignore The Human Element In Layoffs

Be empathic with layoffs
Empathy should drive your approach. Here are three things effective leaders consider.

The auto giant Stellantis recently fired 400 employees at a virtual meeting. I could hardly believe it and compared it to getting divorced via Zoom.

In today’s fast-paced world, where efficiency seems to trump everything, the human element is too frequently relegated to the shadows, sacrificed at the altar of the bottom line.

While I understand that our working relationships aren’t marriages, it’s ironic how organizations demand loyalty from their employees while their leaders hesitate to reciprocate. I’m quite biased when I think about how to center empathy when you are faced with terminations. One of my seminal experiences with large-scale layoffs was at a large corporation where the entire essence of the brand was centered around products designed to deepen human bonds. So arguably, my experiences are tainted—toward the positive.

Finding another way besides firing

The leaders of this organization shared with every one of their direct reports that we needed to reduce our budget by 20 percent, and they asked us to all come up with our best ideas for how to do so. About 80 percent of the people-leaders focused on labor cost. After all, labor costs tend to be the largest line item on most P&L statements. But the remaining 20 percent of the folks didn’t take such a logical and reasonable approach. They actually started with empathy and compassion. That smaller group of people pulled their teams together and asked a very specific question, “Where are we wasting money on things that are absolutely useless and not fruitful?” They also asked their employees to work together to think about efficiencies that could be obtained.

Guess what? They identified solutions that extended beyond layoffs.

This smaller group of leaders demonstrated for the rest of us that, first of all, firing people is not always the only, or even best, way to reduce costs. When we think about centering empathy during layoffs, I know it is likely idealistic and highly unlikely to expect leaders to communicate with folks in advance. However, doing so demonstrates that an organization values communication. What happened at my company was an example of teamwork and collaboration. While perhaps a tad bit Pollyanna, I think it is very reasonable for me to ask leaders to think about what they would want to happen if it were them.

Who wants to find out via an email that they’ve lost their jobs?

The answer is hardly anyone, and if we deny that fact, it’s important to know that empathy cannot sit on a bit of hypocrisy. If we just treated people with a modicum of the decency that we each expect, we can make amazing amounts of progress.

Living your values

But I would argue that leadership requires that we treat people better than we expect to be treated. In fact, I believe that good, solid leadership is living according to our values. If leaders are honest about what they say they value and also have the integrity to live according to those values, there’s hardly a way for you to do a mass layoff on a fake meeting virtually.

A leader’s values are wonderfully visible when they connect genuinely, positively and compassionately with the workforce—and sometimes in person. When a newborn is first exposed to humans, it is important that they experience physical touch. Without physical touch, it is said that a baby will die. We have somehow convinced ourselves that we appreciate being alone and that human connectedness is not nearly as important, but that’s just simply not the truth. If we knew we had to go to the diner tomorrow afternoon and sit next to the family of the people we laid off, I believe we would make more humanistic decisions.

But that’s not how our world is set up. Sometimes we’re terminating people who live halfway around the globe. Sometimes these are people we’ve never met in person. But humans have the ability to imagine what it would be like if they did have to sit across the table at the diner from the family of the people they were terminating. Simply engaging in the mental exercise would help us be more empathetic in our decision-making.

The owners of the organization I worked for decided that they would not lay anyone off. In fact, each individual owner gave up a little bit of their personal funds to help us make payroll and give employees a raise that year. I cannot speak for everyone else who was employed there at the time, but I can speak for me: This example of empathetic leadership shifted my perspective and my engagement levels. From that day forward, I was willing to give discretionary effort. I was an even more dedicated and loyal employee. Their leadership actions—their personal sacrifice—modeled for me what leadership looks like.

Effective leaders consider several things when they have to have layoffs:

  1. Decenter their personal comfort: Leadership requires being able to have difficult conversations. While it might be efficient to do so virtually or through email, it is not effective leadership.
  2. Align values: A lack of alignment between the company’s values and typical leadership behavior is a mark of unethical behavior. It is deceitful and immoral to state a set of values and behave in ways that are inconsistent with those values.
  3. Practice empathy: Leaders have multiple roles to play. Managing processes requires centering efficiency. However, managing people is not an exercise in efficiency. There are people at the ends of our data points, and we must lead as such.

The people who support virtual layoffs are correct; it is logistically simpler. But it overlooks the emotional and psychological aftermath on the employees who remain. It is well-documented and proven that layoffs can precipitate a decline in job satisfaction, commitment and performance among the surviving staff, thereby negatively impacting the organization. If you want a healthy workplace culture, you consider the people you are terminating as well as the culture you will leave behind.

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