How to best prepare managers for layoff conversations with their teams 

February 2, 2023, 12:30 PM UTC
A young man consoles a young woman holding a box filled with binders and personal belongings.
Leaders can prepare their managers to deliver bad news the right way.
Twenty47studio—Getty Images

Employers have laid off well over 50,000 workers since the beginning of January, much of which has spanned the tech, finance, and media sectors. More are likely to follow.

While CEOs have acted heartened over layoff decisions, managers are likely to find these conversations particularly difficult because of the intimate relationships they’ve developed with direct reports and the time and energy invested in their hiring and growth.

It’s easy to get layoffs wrong and risk tarnishing the company’s brand, so managers must be adequately prepared and equipped with resources to navigate these discussions. 

“Even though [layoffs are] an employment conversation in such a sensitive part of the employment cycle, it is a really strong reflection of the company and its brand,” says Rebecca Starr, area president at Gallagher’s HR consulting practice.

Ahead of separation conversations, managers, especially first-time managers, should receive training on handling emotional responses, questions, and pushback from affected employees.

“Legal representatives and HR should be involved in setting the strategy, building the script, building the necessary supporting documents, and ideally, attending these conversations with managers to provide additional support and manage risk,” says Andrew Karr, a director at Gartner’s HR practice.

Leadership should also include IT in management planning so that employee access to company-owned computers and internal resources such as email isn’t cut off prematurely. 

As for scripts, they should clearly explain why the layoffs are happening and outline severance package details, or when to expect them, and other considerations such as outplacement services. 

Empathy is of utmost importance during layoff conversations. “​​It will be extremely emotionally challenging for employees, and managers need to recognize that. If that’s not recognized, that’s a potential pitfall,” says Karr.

Managers aren’t expected to have all the answers during separation conversations and should be transparent about what they know and don’t know and provide resources for employees with additional concerns.

After separation conversations, managers should make time to address the remaining employees. As with laid-off workers, managers should communicate the business decision behind the layoffs and expect emotional responses and fear. It’s especially important to hold these conversations with remote workers, who are already geographically distanced and may feel disconnected from the company. Managers should be prepared to receive questions from remaining employees on changes to their own roles. For example, will they take on extra responsibilities or report to a new person? However, management should not promise job security to remaining employees since layoffs tend to happen in rounds.

Below is a sample script, courtesy of Gartner, for managers and company leaders to model their communications during layoff conversations. But experts warn that each company’s situation is unique, and it’s best to tailor a message to the company’s brand, circumstances, and culture.

“Because of the significant effect that rising inflation has had on our company’s financial performance, the company had to make tough decisions to enable us to continue operations. Although other significant measures have been put in place to reduce costs, a key factor in stabilizing our organization’s finances is a reduction in headcount. This was a last resort for our organization but is now a necessary action for us to take. I regret to inform you that, as a result of this business decision, you will be laid off, effective [insert timeline]. This decision has been made with much consideration, approved by multiple people in the organization, and is final.

The organization and I recognize the effect that this layoff can have on you [and your family]. As such, the organization will provide you with the following benefits and pay: [Provide a high-level overview of severance and benefits plan. If providing an outplacement resource, outline how the employee can get in touch with that service or when the service will reach out to the employee. Also, inform the employee if the package has been designed with specific benefits directly related to applicable regional, industry, or sector-specific labor market considerations.]

The documents [provided in person or sent in a follow-up email, depending on whether the conversation is in person or virtual] outline these benefits in more depth. If you have specific questions regarding this package, please reach out to [insert severance and benefits package point of contact name]. Be sure to read these materials carefully, and make sure your year(s) of service since your most recent hire, rehire, or recall from layoff are correctly noted. Also, please verify your correct home address and phone number.

We now need you to take the following actions to complete your transition from the company. [Outline the actions the employee needs to take, such as cleaning out their desk, completing final time sheets, completing final expense reports and/or returning company property. If the meeting is happening virtually, outline how employee possessions in the office will be returned to them and how the employee should return company-owned property (via mail or drop-off location). Mandate a timeline for completion.]

We also need to review the company’s termination checklist. [Review checklist with the employee.] We must reinforce that you have a continuing legal responsibility to protect confidential and proprietary information after your employment ends.

If you have any questions, please ask them now, and we will answer them to the best of our ability or direct you to the best-fit contact. [Answer employee questions.] I recognize that you may have additional questions after you’ve had time to digest this information and read through the resources we’ve given to you, so please feel free to contact me or [HR representative name] at any time. [Insert any information regarding HR office hours if you will be holding these types of sessions for laid-off employees.] We thank you for your contributions to the organization and wish you the best.”

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