How can we do layoffs humanely? (The free version)
6 min read

How can we do layoffs humanely? (The free version)

This week, I wrote about how to do human layoffs for the paid newsletter. Because this is such an important topic that, unfortunately, will probably be relevant to more and more companies in our community, I decided to publish a free version here.

“You can take somebody’s job, but you don’t have to take their dignity.” –Ben Horowitz

No leaders ever wants to do layoffs–it an excruciatingly painful act–but do yourself a favor and do a great job at it. Aspire to look back at how it went down, and be proud of yourself and your team for how you conducted yourselves and treated others.

The key do doing a great job is being extremely prepared. Here are some tips on how to get there.

Much of what you'll read about is based on my experience working with a small handful of companies through their layoffs, talking to a few dozen employees who were impacted by layoffs (as survivors and departures), and reading as much as I could find on the topic (this episode of a16z's Boss Talk was especially helpful). If you have to do layoffs, make sure you have a professional People and Human Resources person involved–this is a thing you want to do by the books, and there are legalities and edge-cases to consider.

“You can take somebody’s job, but you don’t have to take their dignity.” –Ben Horowitz

No leaders ever wants to do layoffs–it an excruciatingly painful act–but do yourself a favor and do a great job at it. Aspire to look back at how it went down, and be proud of yourself and your team for how you conducted yourselves and treated others.

The key do doing a great job is being extremely prepared. Here are some tips on how to get there.

Much of what you'll read about is based on my experience working with a small handful of companies through their layoffs, talking to a few dozen employees who were impacted by layoffs (as survivors and departures), and reading as much as I could find on the topic (this episode of a16z's Boss Talk was especially helpful). If you have to do layoffs, make sure you have a professional People and Human Resources person involved–this is a thing you want to do by the books, and there are legalities and edge-cases to consider.

Principles

  • No mess! Move everything in the direction of stability: when layoffs happen, you are injecting a tornado of instability into everyone's lives. As soon as the news is out, it is your job to answer as many questions as you can, as quickly as you can, without creating any new ones. Do not create a shit show. Do not communicate anything unless there is a clear plan of action (for everyone!) to go with it.
  • Everyone is just thinking, "what happens to me now": Everything you do should be aimed at answering that question as clearly and thoroughly as possible.
  • Strive for clarity, warmth, and consistency in all communication: have a plan and a message, stick to it, with empathy. And, help anyone who will have to communicate from a position of authority about this (HR, People Ops, Managers, leaders, etc.) do the same.
  • CEO is DRI: you should be closely in the loop the final decision-maker on everything related to these layoffs. Do not outsource this, especially delivering the news, to anyone else. You are the moral authority and your company and the decisions you will make in this scenario are moral ones. Whether you are a peacetime or a wartime CEO, you have an obligation to your team on this.
  • Keep the working group very small and the planning window short: getting this right requires a lot of work and planning, and you'll need to enlist additional support to get you there in a reasonable time frame. Figure out the minimum number of people and time required to get this right. Everyone on the working team should be deeply trusted–this news cannot leak to the broader team or chaos will ensue.
  • Run of show is the most important artifact: The run of show answers the question of who is told what, when. You'll want to have this scheduled down to the ~minute to maximize stability and clarity for everyone. This is the most important artifact you'll create and all other artifacts will stem from your choices here (more on this later).
  • In very broad brushstrokes, this will include: global all hands, internal comms out (cut by next steps), external comms out, 1:1 meetings with departed individuals, something for the surviving team
  • Reminder that this probably starts at t-1 day, but it probably doesn't end for another few months when the dust will have settled
  • Master the choreography: you only get one chance to do this right, everyone must be prepared to hit their marks with extreme precision. Do whatever you need to do to be perfect day-of.
  • Respect for the people leaving: if that doesn't feel like an immediate priority, remember that these are the close friends and colleagues of many of the people that are staying and they are watching (very closely) how you treat them.
  • As generous a severance package as you can: think of this as creating a cushion to help people absorb this news and figure out next steps.
  • Get information into inboxes ASAP: once the news is shared, it's going to send minds spinning and tummy's turning in a way that it's going to make it difficult (read: impossible) for information to be absorbed. Get the details into inboxes ASAP so that people can process the information they need that's going to get them to stability when they're ready.  
  • Your internal comms = your external comms: people are going to talk about this stuff outside of your company. expect leaks, screenshots, and recordings. make it something you'd be proud to have out there.
  • Trust that everyone will behave maturely, but be prepared for the event that they don't: don’t contribute to environment of more mistrust at a time when trust is so important by doing things like cutting off Slack access immediately or proverbially sending security to their desks to pack up. But, be prepared with escalation paths (ex- rules for shutting off Slack access or ) in the event that

List of materials to prep (with owners):

  • **Run of show: remember that this should cover all of your impact buckets
  • Escalation paths: things that could go wrong, and what to do if they do (internally and externally)
  • Internal comms plan: departing and surviving
  • Script/talking points for managers: who are going to talk to their teams who they have the direct relationships with and are also probably fearing for their own jobs and company's future
  • External comms plan: blog post, twitter comms, CEO statement, etc.
  • Talking points for employees to use externally: like how to explain this to outsiders, how to show up on Twitter, what to say if reporters reach other

Prioritize leader energy levels/mental health by:

  • Practicing your comms/delivery: by the time you share the news, you should be able to deliver it without thinking. You're probably going to have an overflow of emotions, day-of, and you don't want that to get in the way of the things your team needs from you.
  • Scheduling regular breaks from meetings for leaders: they may need to respond to escalations or make game-time decisions, and you don't want them tied up in meetings or needing to text/type while they are in important meetings with others.
  • Making sure you're eating/hydrating: if that means having meals prepped or food deliveries scheduled, do it.
  • Scheduling a 'breather' after global All Hands for CEO: it's emotional. make sure you have time to collect yourself (take a walk, go outside, grab a coffee, hug a loved one), so you are emotionally and mentally prepared to face the rest of what's ahead.
  • Schedule time with a loved one that evening: It's going to be a hard day. Plan to spend time around someone that loves you and cares about you.
  • Being prepared for an influx of outreach from outsiders: you might want to have some canned responses prepared so that you can respond quickly/without much thought and stay focused don your team.

Check out the paid version for:

  1. Other tips, reminders, and gotchas: like using a codename, how to loop underperformers in to your departure list, how to run your all hands and follow-up comms, how to deal with the inevitable swirl of gossip, and more
  2. Themes and talking points that work: like ""Our priority to day is to take care of the colleagues that are departing. In the days and weeks that come, we are going to be shifting our focus onto the team that's staying. We know you have questions, but sit tight. We'll get there shortly."
  3. Themes and talking points that don't work: like "this is a blessing in disguise"