I remember the buzz of pre-COVID New York. In early March of 2020, the friends who didn’t trek back to their suburban childhood homes to “wait it out” stocked up on toilet paper and perishables amidst a near-daily circulation of end-of-the-world imagery: grocery shelves emptying at an alarming rate, surgical masks popping up more frequently on my commute to work.
I, like others, didn’t want to work myself up over what I assumed would be a two-to-three week blip in history. When my roommate told me I should stop going to the gym “because sweat and spit were the primary means of transmission” I admit (embarassingly so) that I thought she had lost her mind.
Then, two days before the national lockdown, the head of our company called us in one-by-one. She hinted that she understood our concern with how the company would stay afloat — after all, a catering kitchen/consultancy specializing in weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate happy hours wouldn’t continue to do well in a world that was telling people to stay home and distance.
This conversation occurred at noon, after a full morning of work. Since we went in the room individually and were a team of seven event planners, we all hounded the first colleague who came back upstairs to our studio-apartment-turned-office.
“How did it go?” we repeated.
Without looking up from his computer screen he said, “not good.” I was next to be called down.
I walked into our dining room used for tastings, and saw the head of the company and our operations director sitting at the end of a long, wooden communal table. After a brief and pregnant pause, the CEO told me that I was being let go. I could gather my things and take as much time as I needed. Our parting gift was a prepped lunch from a wedding client who had postponed their ceremony until next month.
She asked that I don’t mention being laid off to the rest of the team since they wanted to make sure people heard it from her first. “Of course,” I said, balking at the idea of having to go upstairs and face the remaining team to pack up my stuff and try my best to hold it together.
When I re-entered the office and began to clean files off my computer, the tears came and wouldn’t stop. It was like we were all sitting in the principal’s office, waiting to be told our fate: detention or expulsion. I really hadn’t seen this coming.
Breakups in any type of relationship are hard, but poor communication makes them tactless and in some cases, vindictive. Although it’s never easy to have a conversation about being laid off, I reflect on that experience and know that if I’m ever in a position of leadership, I would have done things differently.
For those startups that are experiencing the difficult process and decision to lay off team members, here are my four top tips for doing so with empathy, respect, and a soft landing:
1. Hold conversations privately and at the beginning of the day/week.
The night before the layoffs occurred, my boss sent us an ominous email alluding to “hard conversations” they’d been having with legal teams over the past few weeks.
I remember texting a colleague: “omg, are we getting fired?” “no way,” he responded, “they would do that over the phone.”
Remember that layoffs affect more than just those being let go: they affect your current team, too — that's why holding these conversations privately is critical. Though I think their attempt to have conversations in person seemed more tactful, in retrospect, a phone or video call would have been preferred to an in-person conversation. This would allow me private time to process, deal with my initial emotions, and walk into the office levelheaded to pack up my things.
Additionally, don’t make your employees wake up early, commute to your office and work for a full or half day only to tell them to pack up their things (and, in the case of my employer, pack up their things in front of everyone else). Not only is this humiliating and distracting for the laid off employee, but it can cause rifts in projects that may have gotten underway over the course of the day.
2. Provide referrals and career coaching as part of a severance package.
While I was compensated for the remainder of March of that year, I was left with no resources for who to contact and how to find my next position.
Outplacement support, or the process of helping former employees find their next job, should extend far beyond a verbal putting out of “feelers”, and severance. A decent outsourcing package should offer something from each of the following buckets:
- Financial resources aka severance pay.
- Informational resources to help candidates know where to look and/or a contact list of people in your network that you can introduce them to. You could also offer to pay for career coaching services like Bravely or BetterUp.
- Educational resources to help people on their career path, including submitting to layoff lists (more on this next).
3. Submit to a layoff list aggregator.
One quick way to support your employees tangibly is to submit a list of layoffs to a layoff aggregator site, like OneSoftLanding.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a friend of mine mentioned that the site was a way to connect recruiters with folks who were recently let go. That being said, I used it a bit unconventionally: I’d scour the lists and reach out to folks with the jobs that piqued my interest to ask if they’d be down to have a virtual coffee and chat more about the type of work they were doing. This helped me make connections, but also made me realize where my skillset overlapped with my interests. I knew I wanted to work in digital marketing, so I kept in touch with everyone who helped me to connect to my next opportunity.
A year later, I joined the company that created OneSoftLanding (Dover, you should check out our AMA) — a real full-circle moment!
4. Be a human, not the face of the company.
While layoffs are never easy (and at times, inevitable), approaching them as a human rather than the voice of a company goes a long way.
In other words: lead by saying that you understand that this is a tough conversation. Allow your employees to process in real-time, and let them know that you can take breaks and/or connect later in the day if they need time to digest the news. Check-in later in the week. Have the convo privately and in the morning on a Monday. Follow-up on connecting them to your network. Provide them with a true severance package. Submit a layoff list to OneSoftLanding (or send it to me, and I’ll add it for you).