Human Resources: Executing the layoff

It’s 3 a.m., and you still have not gotten any sleep. You are dreading the meetings you have scheduled for the morning. Business is down 25 percent, and you must reduce the size of your workforce. Many of the people who you will be laying off were employees that you hired, bowled with and have attended their family weddings. Your employees, along with thousands of other American workers, will be thrust into the world of the unemployed. Each of your workers and you will experience a range of emotions from fear to anger as they go through the layoff process.

This is the first in a series of articles that will address the emotions the supervisors, employees and the surviving employees experience during the layoff process.

I surveyed small business owners, psychologists and members of the Council of Small Business Executives (COSBE) Board and my CEO group about their experiences conducting layoff interviews.

We will first deal with the responses to my questionnaire which dealt with the emotions experienced by the person performing the layoff. The first question posed was: What emotions did you experience while you were preparing for the layoff?

The responses were as follows; “I got depressed” and fell into a “state of helplessness” and more than one respondent stated that they experienced many sleepless nights. They also experienced frustration, guilt, anger, disappointment and conflict. These emotions are exacerbated by the fact that as a small businessman they have had primary contact with the person being exited and their family. This primary contact is the source of the feelings of conflict and a sense of failure.

Many of the respondents were concerned that they failed at their jobs and let the employees and the company down by not making it more successful. The business owners also experienced sadness and had to detach themselves from the situation so that they could make a sound business decision. The phrase “gut wrenching” was used to describe how they felt while conducting a layoff.

When I had to lay off supervisors at JH Collectibles, I felt conflicted. My supervisors had been loyal and productive, yet the decrease in sales mandated a reduction in staff. I was angry at the organization that I was the one who had to execute the layoff. The overriding emotional climate was that the owners were making a choice that would affect someone’s livelihood and their families. Others mentioned they were feeling “anxiety” about potential additional layoffs.

The second question posed in the layoff survey was: What emotions, feelings did you experience during the meetings with the affected employee or employees?

The responses were as expected, very personal in nature. The owners felt sorry for the affected employees, they offered to write letters of endorsement or to be a reference for future employment. Many mentioned that they offered severance packages in order to soften the impact of the layoff. Some also felt sadness and projected empathy for the persons being released.

This tendency to take on the emotions of the employee should be avoided. One owner tried to be upbeat and optimistic, but it did not last long. The same owner stated that he could not afford to show weakness to any of his employees. He commented that he felt sadness inside and tried to project an upbeat attitude and concern for his employees. Another owner shared that he had resolved himself to the actions needed and remained as dispassionate as he could during the meeting. Another owner shared that he shut off his feelings during the terminations. At the extreme end of the emotional scale was a response that one owner felt like he was attending a funeral. One would infer he was mourning the end of the relationship and actually experiencing grief.

The final question posed in the survey was: What was your emotional state after the meetings were over?

Overall, the response was that the respondents felt relieved and drained after they had completed the termination conferences. One owner stated he felt “numb” and wanted time to pass without doing anything. Another respondent explained that he was somewhat relieved that the long and arduous process was over. He then turned his attention in moving forward and staying in contact with those who have left, to assist them in moving through the grief process. One owner felt really down, while another felt numbness but a sense of calm for making what he believed to be the best decision for the company. Another owner said that it is the most dispiriting task of a business leader to let good and appreciated employees go into such an uncertain destiny. Regret was another feeling mentioned by a number of respondents. This was not a task that anyone aspired to do, yet one that they could not escape.

If you as an owner or manager experienced any of these emotions, you are not alone. These feelings are normal and if they don’t resolve themselves after a reasonable period of time, the intervention of a mental health professional may be required. If sleeplessness turns to insomnia, or anger and guilt turn into depression, then intervention is required.

Remember, the person being laid off experiences some of the same emotions as the person performing the layoff. In reality, the range of their emotions is larger than the business owner’s. 

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