How to Handle Layoffs with Compassion

More layoffs due to the economic fallout of COVID are still to come. Naturally, it’s hard on the employees being laid off, and also on the leaders that have to do the layoffs. But even when you have to let an employee go, you can do it in a heartfelt way that softens the blow and gives them hope for their future.

In March, the world suffered a huge shock. As the economy ground to a halt, layoffs and furloughs reverberated through the labor market. Six months later, the pandemic is still with us. So are the layoffs. Hundreds of thousands of workers—mostly in industries like travel/tourism, entertainment, and cosmetics—have lost their jobs, while others have been warned that “temporary” furloughs will become permanent.

In other words, it seems likely that a landslide of layoffs is coming. Obviously, this is a grim prospect for employees. But it’s also hard on leaders who struggle to deliver the news kindly to employees who may be increasingly fragile.

At the start of the pandemic, people believed it would be a short-lived crisis. Since then it’s become clearer and clearer that there’s no end in sight. This level of uncertainty is really tough on the psyche. When we do have to deliver bad news, it’s even more critical to do so with love.

Great leaders let people go in the same way they lead: with compassion, integrity, candor, and the assurance that employees do have what it takes to thrive in the future.

Heartfelt leaders inspire employees, engage their emotions, and help them pinpoint and pursue their passions. Over my career, I have strived to be an example of what heartfelt leadership looks like in action—even when having to let an employee go.

Read on for tips on how to fire someone the heartfelt way:

Above all, follow the Golden Rule.

If you must lay somebody off, the best approach to take is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule is a guiding principle that leaders should live by every day, but never is it more important than when employees are at their most vulnerable. Imagine how you would want to be treated if you were to lose your job and move forward with that in mind. You would not want to hear bad news via email or a mass Zoom call, or be treated as if you didn’t matter to your supervisor and your company.

When you must communicate bad news, consider the following guidelines:

  • Be honest and transparent. Tell them what you know as soon as you know it. If there is something you don’t yet know, tell them that too.
  • Get the bad news upfront. There is no way to do this painlessly, so rip off the Band-Aid.
  • Spell out exactly how you arrived at the decision to lay people off. For example, you might put things in perspective by explaining how COVID is disrupting the industry. Respect them enough to share your strategy and how the company will move forward.
  • Be very clear on what will happen next: what the time frames will be, what severance will look like, etc.
  • Tell them what they will be able to keep. Maybe they’ll be able to keep healthcare coverage for a while. Some companies may let people keep their computers.
  • Assure them that being laid off isn’t their fault.
  • Tell them you love and care about them.

Maybe you can’t be by their side, physically—but you can be emotionally.

Early in my career, I had to lay off my team when I worked for AT&T. When my first team member came into my office, I motioned for him to sit on the sofa instead of in one of the chairs on the opposite side of my desk. I immediately came out from behind my desk and sat right next to my team member, turning toward him. I was right there next to this employee as I laid out the details of what was going to happen.

Obviously, this physical closeness likely can’t happen now due to social distancing. But leaders can and must find a way to keep that spirit of human connection and caring—even if you must deliver the bad news via video chat.

Schedule a one-on-one meeting when you have a lot of time because you will want to offer plenty of space for the conversation. If you keep your message authentic, from the heart, and honest, they are most likely to receive it well.

Spell out their unique strengths—and reassure them that they’ll be able to leverage those strengths again.

This is a time, in particular, when people need to be reminded of the gifts they bring to the table. Be specific as you recount the many contributions the person has made to the team and the organization. Share how much you honor, respect, and admire them and remind them that other organizations will recognize and value their skills and abilities as well.

Reassure the person that these terrible times won’t last forever. A sense of hope may be the best gift you can give them right now.

Help them brainstorm their next step.

After you have broken the news, roll up your sleeves and make yourself an ally to your employee as they begin envisioning their future. Discuss with them what they would really love to be doing going forward. Brainstorm about the type of jobs they would love to have. Review the kind of companies in the local region or elsewhere that might have good opportunities for them to do the things they really want to do.

To get the ball rolling, ask, “What is important to you in life, and what makes you excited about your career?” Listen closely to each response.

Wholeheartedly commit to helping them find their next role.

Assure the employee that you will do everything in your power to help them land their dream job. Call around to any contacts you have and inquire about potential job opportunities for each member of your staff. Give referrals freely. Help them come up with stretch assignments that will give them more experience and prepare them for potential opportunities they are interested in pursuing. 

When they do find other opportunities, coach them through the interview process.

Touch base with the team member through their interview process at other companies. Make yourself available to run mock interviews and check in often to see how they are doing. They will appreciate having a mentor through this challenging process.

Is it unorthodox to keep in touch with employees after you let them go? Perhaps. But if you truly care about someone, you will want to. And who knows? You may be able to bring the person back at a later date.

When I had to lay off my team at AT&T, each employee went off to better, more exciting positions. A few started their own businesses, and I was even able to bring back others as contractors. The point? Just because you’re letting someone go doesn’t mean their life is over.

There’s no escaping the discomfort and pain caused by layoffs, but these steps keep the suffering to a minimum. You have the responsibility to send an employee off into the job market hopeful and inspired, not angry, or hurt. If you’ve done your job right and acted from a place of love, they’ll leave knowing that the best part of their life is still ahead.

About the Author:

Deb Boelkes is the award-winning author of The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture and Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring. She is not just a role model heartfelt leader; she’s the ultimate authority on creating best places to work, with 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America. For more information, please visit

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