Presiding over layoffs is a “distasteful part of management that many people fear,” says Laurence J. Stybel, an executive in residence at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. It’s also a thankless task. “Nobody ever got promoted because they fire well. But your career can get sidetracked if you don’t treat people in a dignified way.”
Dismissing an employee or group of employees is particularly hard when you disagree with the decision, says Andy Molinsky, professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University International Business School. “You’ll feel conflicted, discouraged and frustrated.” Still, as a manager you may have to do what’s best for the company.
Here’s how to manage the process in a way that is clear and respectful:
– SEEK TRAINING: All organizations need an “effective, efficient, and standardized process” for handling layoffs “and everyone – managers and potential managers – should be trained in how to do it,” according to Stybel. If your company doesn’t offer training, Molinsky suggests seeking advice and guidance from mentors who have first-hand experience with laying off employees.
– PRACTICE:Don’t go into this task cold – and certainly don’t go in alone, says Stybel. It’s more comfortable and legally practical to deliver this news with at least one other person in the room. “Ideally you’re working closely with a consultant at an outplacement firm to help you manage the process,” he says. If not, enlist someone from human resources. As you practice what you plan to say, roleplay how the employee may react. “During the trial run, anticipate worst-case scenarios,” he says. “You need to consider how you will manage your emotions” in these situations. You should have a script, but try not to rely too heavilyon it, warns Molinsky.
– CONSIDER LOGISTICS: The physical environment in which you deliver the news should be a private, quiet room or office, Molinsky says. Have a box of tissues at the ready. The goal is to “maximize your comfort in delivering the message” while also granting “dignity to the person who’s being laid off.”
– BE DIRECT: The script for letting an employee go is relatively straightforward, says Molinsky. “Get to the point quickly: Be direct, be honest, and no small talk.”
– DON’T GET SIDETRACKED: As the person who’s losing her job absorbs what’s happening, she might react emotionally. She might get teary; she might lash out; she might have questions. But you, the manager, must not respond. “You don’t want the conversation to devolve into a debate, discussion, or argument,” says Molinsky.
– BE COMPASSIONATE: When you’ve been tasked with laying off an employee with whom you have a good working relationship, “it’s likely you’ll feel genuine, deep sympathy” for that person, says Molinsky. In cases like these, “offer support” by, say, assuring him you’ll give a great reference or offering to introduce your contacts. But never talk about how difficult this decision has been for you. “That is irrelevant,” Stybel says. “The employee doesn’t care about your feelings right now.”
– DECOMPRESS AND DEBRIEF:Letting go of an employee is a demanding task that “takes a toll” on even the most experienced managers, says Stybel. Don’t neglect your own well being. Take a walk. Take a nap. Lift weights. It’s also “important to debrief,” with the HR manager that helped you do the layoff, says Molinsky. Together you can “reflect on how it went and what you might have done differently,” he says.
(Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.)
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate