4 Tips for Having Tough Furlough or Layoff Conversations

The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force companies large and small to make difficult workforce reduction decisions, laying off or furloughing employees to safeguard their long-term viability. 

At the same time, it’s important for organizations to be intentional about how these decisions can impact their company culture, particularly since employees are watching what companies do and how they do it. Yet wIth the right communication strategies, HR and business leaders can lay off or furlough people in ways that nonetheless honor employee growth, maintain human respect and connection, and support employee identity.

A communications model incorporating each of the elements below can help you push past the discomfort inherent in difficult conversations, while sending a message of compassion and empathy to reinforce your company’s desired culture.

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  1. Facilitate growth. Be mindful that even in the process of letting people go, you can still positively impact their growth as human beings. Support their self-acceptance, self-awareness, and self-accountability by treating them with respect and honoring the employer-employee connection. Some tangible and specific ways to support people in this difficult situation include helping them find their next opportunity, writing letters of recommendation, and providing outplacement or coaching.
  2. Show respect. For starters, this is not the time to send a team of security guards in to force people to pack up their belongings under supervision. Take a more respectful approach. This may include actions such as determining the degree to which the company can honor employee individuality and preferences around individuals choosing their last day. Likewise, consider permitting people to decide how to share information about their new employment status.
  3. Maintain connection. Inject humanity in the process by treating employees with compassion. Help them to feel like alumni of your company rather than exiles. Make an effort to keep the lines of communication open after they leave by answering questions and providing updates. In other words, maintain connections with laid off and furloughed employees. Additionally, openness, which fosters trust, is also critical to maintaining connection. With that in mind, avoid leaning on HR policies or letting legal fears get in the way of communicating with honesty.
  4. Honor contributions. Consider honoring employee’ contributions to the company. Letting people know how their achievements have helped the organization can go a long way toward lifting their spirits at a very difficult and sad time.

Ultimately, taking an individual approach to delivering a difficult message can protect and enhance your company culture, brand perception, and future recruiting efforts. By focusing on elements of growth, respect, connection, and contributions, you can make difficult conversations easier, as well as have a positive and lasting impact on employees who are let go — as well as those who stay.

Dr. Laura Gallaher is an organizational psychologist, an expert teacher, trainer, speaker, and consultant, particularly in the concepts of self-awareness, accountability, trust-building, and team cohesion. She began her career at NASA (after the Columbia exploded upon re-entry in 2003), where Laura and a team of organizational psychologists were hired to change the cultural influences that played a role in the accident. While at NASA, Laura founded Gallaher Edge, a management consulting firm that creates transformational change in businesses through meaningful and impactful human experiences. At Gallaher Edge, she helps a variety of companies and its leadership teams navigate changes and improve their organizational culture through workshops that help build trust, promote open dialogue, and align on agreement on the future vision of the organization, and the strategy to get there.