Letting people go, unfortunately, is going to be a reality for a lot of businesses over the coming months. It’s one of the hardest things that leaders have to do – look at the number of euphemisms for it that have been used over the years, from giving someone ‘the sack‘ to ‘rightsizing‘ a company (and all the others I’m using in this article), each one replaced by the next as people get more and more uncomfortable with a particular phrase.
And because it’s an unpleasant thing to do, people are tempted to think about it as little as possible. That can lead to bad decisions, awkward conversations, and false hope – all of which you want to avoid, particularly at a time like this. Your duty as a leader is to do what’s best for the business, but your duty as an employer (and a good human being) is to do whatever is practical to help them bounce back.
The first thing to do is plan, as dispassionately as you can – think about what roles will become redundant rather than which individuals at this stage. Bear in mind that this will be a very difficult time for all involved – those doing the laying off, those being let go, and those staying – you only want to do this once. And make sure you do this properly; use the expertise of your HR and legal teams if you have them, or get external advice if not.
You should also plan your communication strategy. As soon as you start having one on one conversations with the unfortunate employees, people will start talking – have a prepared email explaining the change to the entire team and showing your gratitude for the contributions of those you’ve had to let go, and schedule a town hall meeting for your entire team as soon as possible.
The hardest thing is the conversation itself. Like all meetings, it’s best to be prepared – particularly when delivering such a difficult message
- Write a script – for some reason, this gets bad press, but I’d much rather know that someone had to prepare for the meeting and that firing people doesn’t come naturally to them!
- Practice, if it’s not something you’ve done before.
- You are best off being direct – start the conversation with the bad news, avoid awkward small talk, and be definite.
- Remember, although this is upsetting news for you to deliver, it’s ten times worse for the person losing their job – do not turn the conversation towards how difficult it is for you, or how your hands are tied. If it’s the company’s decision, and you’re representing the company, you have to own it.
What can you do to help them? What should you do?
Be as clear as you can – offer to provide a reference for them if appropriate, offer to connect them with certain people if you think it would be useful, and make sure you send them through all of the logistics of how their departure will work straight away. The most important thing is to not make promises that you can’t keep, whether that’s finding them a new job, reconsidering your decision, or telling them that everything is going to be okay.
This is crucial to get right. Property is a small business, and a people business – neither the people you let go or the people who stay behind will forget how you handle this, and you never know where they’ll end up.