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Ask The HR Expert: The Do’s and Don’ts When Laying Employees Off

Downsizing, rightsizing or laying off, call it whatever you want, but it’s all tough stuff. If you are the one communicating the message to employees, you need to be prepared to manage the process appropriately and correctly. How someone is treated as they exit the company says a lot about the character and culture of that company and its management team.

So, here are some tips for folks charged with the ugly task of telling staffers they are out of a job:

  • Never meet with the employee alone. Always have someone from HR with you to keep the meeting focused, on track and to answer any tough questions or comments that may arise.
  • Line managers and HR should have a start-to-finish game plan that is in complete alignment with the management team. There’s nothing worse than a line manager making a statement to an employee in a separation meeting that is not supported by HR or the management team.
  • Keep It Short Stupid. Seriously—this meeting is about communicating a decision that has been made and won’t change. The purpose of the meeting is not a discussion, so, keep it short. The less you say about the decision, the better.
  • Always look the employee in the eye.
  • When the inevitable question, “Why me?” is asked, defer to the HR professional, or, simply say something along the lines of: “These are extraordinary times and difficult decisions are being made throughout the company.”
  • Be sure to own the decision to lay off an employee if you are a line manager. Never say, “Well, they made me do this. If it were up to me…”
  • In most cases, it’s a good idea to have laid off employees leave the premises quickly. While they shouldn’t be made to feel like criminals, it’s really best for everyone if they gather their things, say their goodbyes and exit. This is largely so line managers and HR can deal with the “survivors” answering questions and managing the situation to get the team to look and move forward.
  • Make sure the employee is clear about the decision and be sure that all benefits and other HR related questions (references, outplacement, unemployment, the HR file, etc.) have been adequately answered. Also ensure that the employee understands what will happen moving forward with regard to voicemail, email, company-owned equipment, outstanding travel and entertainment expenses, and so forth.
  • Make sure there is a procedure in place to disable credit cards, building access, email and voicemail access at an agreed upon time. You don’t want expenses being racked up after a separation, or, have a disgruntled employee in the building after hours with access to sensitive documents or information.
  • HR and line managers should do some MBWA—”management by walking around.” Talk to people. Be visible. Answer questions as honestly and briefly as you can. Keep folks looking and moving forward.

Sharon Jautz has over 20 years of HR experience at major media companies like Forbes, Conde Nast, and Playboy. She’s been tapped as an HR expert on Washingtonpost.com, giving advice to job seekers everywhere. Her super-power? Scanning a resume in 15 seconds. Find out more about her at her LinkedIn page.

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