How Not to Communicate a Layoff

layoff-womanOn Friday, a friend of mine received news that her position was being eliminated and effective immediately she had been laid off. This, of course, was horrible news. Being laid off unexpectedly right before the holidays is just awful.

She had worked for the company for 22 years.

How do you tell a loyal employee of 22 years that she is being laid off? In this case, the HR rep left the employee a voicemail. The employee received that voicemail during the 15 minute break she had while on jury duty.

“Hi Jane, this is Mary from HR. I’m sorry to tell you that your position has been eliminated and effective immediately you have been laid off. Please come collect your personal belongings on Monday at 8:30am. We’ll have some paperwork for you then. Thank you!”

If there was a playbook for how not to communicate a layoff to employees, this would be it.

Delivering bad news is an awful task. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Perhaps this HR Manager breathed a sigh of relief when she called the employee’s cell phone and heard her outgoing voicemail message. She could leave the message without dealing with the emotional aftermath of the news. Or perhaps she had no other choice. Maybe the message had to be delivered by a certain time and the only option was a voicemail.

Regardless of the circumstances, it was the wrong choice.

We cannot harp on employees to be loyal, stay engaged, give notice, and never burn a bridge, and then turn around and lay someone off via voicemail. We can do better. And it starts with the manager.

Sure, HR needs to be involved in the layoff/termination process, but you, as the manager, have the personal relationship with the employee. It is your job to deliver the good news and the bad news for the duration of that relationship.

  • The manager should deliver the news privately and in person, if possible.
  • Give the employee time to react, vent, ask questions, and reflect.
  • Be honest, communicate openly, have empathy, and be helpful.
  • Deliver the message in a way that you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed.
  • Be prepared with ideas for how you can help support them in their next steps. But above all else, just be there.

Laying off an employee is not a task to delegate.

When you lay off an employee via voicemail (or email or text message), that digital artifact will undoubtedly make its way around the organization, if not also the news. Beware of the impact such a poorly handled situation can have on engagement and the overall company culture. You’re risking much more than a bad review on You’re risking the loyalty of every employee left behind who wonders when they will be paid back for 22 years of service with a termination via voicemail.