Delivering Bad News During the Holidays

Photo of person impacted by a lay-off

Delivering bad news is an unfortunate, but necessary part of every manager’s responsibilities. Deciding what to communicate and how to deliver the news can be a stressful and emotionally draining experience for the bearer of bad news. However, nothing is worse than having to communicate a termination or lay-off during the holidays. Unfortunately, an end-of-year lay-off is still quite common and requires particularly sensitive care when delivering the devastating news.

When it comes to terminations, unless there has been an egregious violation or extreme misconduct, it is often best to wait until after the holidays to deliver the news. What you lose in terms of recruitment time and paid wages for the underperforming employee are a small price to pay to preserve morale for the rest of the team/organization. When a fellow employee is let go at such a special time, it feels intentionally insensitive and cruel. The remaining team members may question their loyalty to an employer who makes decisions that seem callous. Then, when those employees are on vacation, they’ll use their free time to start passively searching for a new employer.

The timing of a layoff is rarely at the discretion of the line manager. Often, these are decisions made at the executive level in order to reduce employee costs/expenses on the budget before year-end. In this case, while the line manager may disagree with the decision, they still must often deliver the heart-breaking news. A layoff during the holidays is not just devastating because it will put a damper on gift-giving and holiday parties. It often results in at least 2-3 months of unemployment because fewer organizations hire in December and January. Remembering the full scope of the personal/financial impact this will have on the employee is crucial and should result in a manager doing everything they can to deliver the news with compassion.

First, secure as many resources as you can for the employee. From severance to recommendation letters, referrals, job placement services, and counseling, each one represents a tangible offering that shows the organization cares about the individual beyond their last working day. The company’s HR team will likely have specific instructions or even a script to follow when delivering the news. This may sound counter-intuitive given the context of announcing a lay-off with compassion but stick to the script. The script may seem cold in some ways, but there’s a reason why you’re supposed to stick to the relevant information. When we’re uncomfortable, we tend to speak quickly without filtering effectively. For example, a former colleague of mine shared that (in an effort to soften the news) she said the bright side was the individual would be able to spend more time with her college-aged sons who would be home for winter break. The employee quickly reminded her that the college-aged sons would likely be home longer than just the winter break because she could no longer be able to afford the next semester’s tuition. Even with the best intentions, going off-script can result in an even more painful experience for all.

Be sure that your communications to the employee express gratitude. It may seem frivolous given the circumstance, and it may not be fully appreciated by the employee who may be sad/angry as they process the news, but we should never miss an opportunity to thank someone for their time, effort, energy, passion, and loyalty.

Finally, remember that layoffs affect everyone. The remaining employees will have a full range of emotions to process as they say goodbye to their colleagues, wonder about their own long-term job security, and take on extra work to sustain business. Keep an open door to speak with anyone who has questions or concerns about the lay-off or the future, and be realistic about the level of productivity you should expect after the news. As with your communications with the laid off employees, be honest and transparent with your remaining employees. And of course, be compassionate.