Downsizing Your Staff Diplomatically

By Mark Swartz
Canadian Workplace Specialist

How do you downsize loyal workers in a way that preserves as much of their dignity as possible, and gives them the best chance to transition successfully? Not an easy task, given that the eyes of every other employee are upon you. The way you treat terminated staff can have a substantial impact on morale and productivity at work.

Therefore it’s not a bad idea to follow an updated version of the Golden Rule. In this case, think along the lines of “dismiss others as you would have them dismiss you.” If you’ve never been let go involuntarily before, consider putting yourself in the employee’s shoes for a moment (before you escort said shoes to the parking lot with their newly-unemployed owner still in them).

Focus On The Person’s Needs

Many terminated employees report they had at least some inkling their job was in jeopardy. Despite this, the act of actually getting axed often leaves them feeling humiliated and anxiety-ridden.

The three main immediate concerns of someone you have just ousted tend to be as follows:

  • How do I leave the premises with some semblance of self-respect and with the information and materials I may need to help me in my job search?
  • What will I tell my significant other/family/friends etc.?
  • How will I afford to stay afloat now that I’m unemployed?

Your own boss will be watching to ensure you have the moxie to pull this off and do it in a way that doesn’t leave the remaining employees in a state of stark terror or total disillusionment.

Treat Dismissal With Professionalism

Fortunately there are some tried and true ways to dismiss staff in a caring manner that also protects you legally. For starters, paying a reputable outplacement firm (Career Continuation practitioners) to be onsite and help with the proceedings is advisable. They’ll give you some invaluable advice, such as planning not only the termination itself, but the internal communication strategy.

Here are some steps to take in “de-hiring” an employee effectively:

  • Make sure you’ve had the employee’s severance package vetted by an employment lawyer and that it spells out, in detail, exactly what the package offers as well as the date it must be signed off by.
  • Provide outplacement consulting as part of the severance to help mitigate potential liability in case of lawsuits.
  • Plan to hold the termination meeting at a time and location that will not parade the employee through the premises at a peak period. Before the start of work and just after the workday ends are preferable.
  • Avoid letting someone go late on a Friday, when they will be unable to reach out for legal or other advice that they may need to help them cope.
  • Allow them to come back on a weekend or evening to retrieve valuables and/or return company property such as a laptop or cell phone, to minimize possible embarrassment.

Make It Quick And Humane

Keep the termination meeting short and to the point. Stick to a script you’ve worked out beforehand and try not to let emotions get in your way. This is not to time to get into messy personal discussions or say things that could come back to haunt you later on.

If there is any concern for safety regarding the employee you are dismissing, make arrangements for security to be waiting close by. Better safe than sorry.

After the downsizing, you might consider holding “town hall” meetings or conducting “survivor workshops” for remaining employees, especially in the case of larger scale downsizings. At a minimum, make sure you issue an appropriate departure memo to staff and anticipate the kinds of questions you might be asked.

Layoffs are seldom easy. Yet a bit of preparation – seasoned with a healthy dose of humanity – can help preserve the affected employee’s prospects for future success, while maintaining your organization’s (as well as your own) reputation.