Managing layoffs that are due to the COVID-19 crisis

Laying off employees is difficult in normal times; but amidst the Covid-19 global health crisis, the task is emotionally and cognitively overwhelming due to the great deal of uncertainty. Managers charged with dismissing a wide swath of employees are pulled on various fronts as their hearts go out to people but on the other hand they have a responsibility to the organisation, while they are also worrying about their own future. Here are some recommendations, which could be useful.

Are layoffs really needed?

The impulse to cut costs is understandable as this is not a periodic recession. As a leader, you need to spark resourceful, creative thinking about how your organisation can save as many jobs as possible. Are there any sacrifices that can be done elsewhere? Any other options to reduce costs? Your goal is to think broadly about how you distribute the widespread negative consequences of Covid-19. Laying off people should be the last resort.

Gather information

If you decide layoffs are necessary or others have made that decision for you, then make sure you’re prepared before you reach out to the affected employees. Figure out how and when you will deliver the news to your employees on an individual basis and what of what the message will consist. These conversations may need to happen fast, but you’ll have a better chance of easing your own and the employee’s anxiety if you can provide them with answers about what happens next. Reach out to HR, and any other senior leaders who might be able to help you prepare answers to questions.

Understand your limitations

Even if you have presided over layoffs in the past, overseeing them during the coronavirus outbreak will be different for one key reason: they won’t take place in person because of social distancing measures. What’s more, you need to have a highly private conversation at a time when privacy is difficult to achieve. Be forewarned: you may get pushback. Employees may anticipate what’s coming and some people aren’t going to be able to handle such bad news from a psychological perspective.

Set the right tone

Because you will deliver the message remotely, you must take extra care to break the news with empathy and compassion. Your aim is to treat people with dignity, fairness, and respect. Even though you as a manager, may worry that you too might get laid-off, this particular termination is not about you. Don’t succumb to your insecurities by saying something like, “This is really hard for me.” At the same time, don’t totally detach from your humanity so that you become a mechanical robot. Instead, find a way to engage your emotion and cultivate a calm and low-key manner. Ideally, you will have the conversation via video link so that you can make eye contact with the other person. If the conversation takes place on the phone, free yourself of all distractions – Be fully present and listen.

Be direct and human

Your message should be clear, concise, and unequivocal. For instance, “I’m sorry, but at the end of next week we shall be terminating your job.” – Although this may feel cold, it allows the other person to process what you’re saying. Express gratitude for their hard work and dedication. Then offer a short and simple explanation about the economic conditions that led to the layoff. Acknowledge, too, that one of the difficult things about being laid off during this crisis is that coworkers won’t get a chance to say goodbye in person. Try to convey the message that we all care about you.

Offer assistance — but don’t overpromise

Be readily available and willing to provide support and counsel to your employee even after the initial conversation. Recognise that this person may need time to process the news and may have questions later on. They might come back to reconnect or seek your advice. Be helpful. Provide information on where your employee should go for any government benefits. Offer ideas about job opportunities at other organisations. Offer to serve as a reference. However, don’t over promise on things you can’t deliver. For instance, you may feel tempted to say, “As things get clearer, and the economy improves, you’re on our list to come back.” No one has that kind of foresight – Don’t give false hope.

Be transparent

In times like these, your remaining employees will look to you for comfort — and an explanation. The survivors are going to be worried about their jobs. No one knows where this is going to end, so onus is on you to be as transparent as possible. Thus it is very important that rumours don’t take over, hence be available to explain and answer questions. Be transparent enough that all employees understand that the organisation is facing a challenge unlike anything it has ever faced.

Focus on your well-being

Finally, take care of yourself, as a manager. Hopefully, this is the only time you face something of this magnitude. But it’s unlikely to be the only time you face a challenge during a period of great uncertainty. The best coping mechanism for when you cannot anticipate what is in store for you is self-care. Eat healthy, wholesome food; get regular exercise; get plenty of sleep at night; read a good book. Find someone else you can talk to — a peer perhaps, a mentor, or a colleague at a different organisation. But be selective and cautious about how much stress and emotion you show to your team. “All eyes are on you” to provide a path forward.

Principles to Remember

Do: 

  • Think carefully about whether layoffs are necessary and reflect on ways your organisation can save as many jobs as possible.
  • Show compassion for your employee and stress that the layoff is not their fault.
  • Seek out a peer or a colleague outside your organisation to whom you can vent and ask for help in coping with your own uncertainty.

Don’t: 

  • Overcommit. Provide support and counsel to the people you’ve laid off, but don’t promise things you can’t deliver.
  • Make this about you. Avoid saying things like, “This is really hard for me.”
  • Neglect your wellbeing. Make a concerted effort to eat well and get enough sleep, and take time for self-care, including exercise and meditation.

 

Silvan Mifsud

Silvan holds a degree in Banking & Finance from the University of Malta and an MBA from the University of Reading, specialising in Corporate Finance and Business Leadership. Silvan has been involved in various sectors of the economy holding various managerial and directorship roles. Silvan is presently working as a Director for Advisory Services at EMCS, whereby he advises various businesses on their strategy, operations, corporate governance, financial performance analysis and sourcing their financing needs.

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