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Why lay offs are not personal

Day off: Sanding down the cork on my Spey rod for a custom fit and thinking about HR. Yeah, I am a HR Nerd

Day off: Maintaining equipment and gear while contemplating HR and thinking about next steps in my personal career. 

Lay off

Have you been laid off and as an employee and had a poor experience? Most employees, including myself, have been laid off, and if you had a bad experience you are not alone. I just received an email from a reader that had a bad experience while being laid off and is the trigger for this post. I have been both laid off and the one responsible for laying employees off, so I feel I have a unique perspective and a few personal theories. I thought this perspective might be helpful to some readers.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was “laid off” about a month ago after our company was acquired. Right now I have the fortune of taking a month off to go fishing. Standing in a river for 8 hours a day can have a very introspective effect on a guy and a retrospective was in order.

If you have been laid off, it sucked. Being let go after 5, 10, or 20 years of working for the man or a company you love has the potential to make it all feel like it was all a waste of time. Being hired and let go after 3 months can be just as painful. You are excited about the new career and emotionally invested. Both instances are events we never forget. A few potential situations below:

  • Did you feel like you were treated with little or no respect?
  • Were the reasons for the lay off understandable?
  • Were benefits, COBRA, unemployment, messaging explained to you? Or did you feel lost and helpless?
  • Were you given any help in finding your next gig?
  • Was unemployment, severance, or the lack of severance explained to you?

I think that most employees understand why layoffs happen and in a lot of instances, if we are paying attention, we can recognize the signs of change ahead of time. As time passes, most employees understand that the company is a business and that a lay off isn’t personal.

It hurts when the messaging during a reduction in force is off-key and the lay off feels personal. 

This is the part of the lay off that I want to address. I want to talk about the fact that lay offs are not personal. Being laid off is strictly a business decision and not personal. Making a layoff personal is the last thing any company wants. The intent and the impact are two different things. The following is NOT an excuse for HR. I just want to provide a business perspective to help employees understand the root causes.

Most HR professionals don’t train for a lay off. I don’t. Fireman train to put out fires. Policeman practice at the firing range. Olympic athletes lift weights and practice their routine 8 hours a day for what can amount to a 2-minute performance. When firefighters are not putting out fires, they are training others or being trained. In all three examples, there is a lot of training and rehearsal before the actual event.

The point I am trying to make is that I do not know of any HR professionals that have attended a day of formal lay off training. I don’t see too many seminars at the SHRM conferences on how to conduct lay offs. I know the information is out there, but let’s face it, if HR doesn’t have a reduction in force coming up, this is not the feel-good seminar that I am rushing to sign up for at the HR conference/convention. HR folks learn how to go through a lay off through trial and error, and every single one is different. I have been through more layoffs than I want to admit to and it is definitely not something I say as a bragging right, but to provide perspective. There is no formula that says “X” amount of employees equals this chain of events. In every lay off that I have been involved in, we laid out a timeline of events for a few days leading up to the event and a timeline with 30-minute increments for the day off the actual event. In every instance, there was a change of play at the line of scrimmage.

I know a lot of HR peeps. I only a handful of HR folks that have conducted lay offs and they are all well-intentioned individuals. Most of these were smaller events that could be kept within the company and not the larger events you see in the local news. The point is, that in cases where small to medium companies are involved, we may have an HR team that is young in their career and through no fault of their own lack “lay off” experience. There are no training wheels when it comes to a lay off, and just like riding a bike, most of us are not 100% successful on the first time.  

Again, this is not an excuse, I just want to provide some perspective on what it takes to put a lay off together and how little experience most of us have done this. I hire people every week. I give raises to employees every month. I have experience being involved in these “happy moments”. In 20 years of HR, I have only been involved in about 7 layoffs and they have all been different. Some lay offs have happened because we acquired a company, others have been because the company changed direction and a few have been because the company was in financial distress. Every event was a different situation with different messaging and different mechanics.

Believe it or not, the HR folks handling the lay off’s feel horrible for having to conduct them. There is no one more aware that employees are losing their jobs and their paychecks. We know that there are mouths to feed at home, mortgages to pay and college tuitions on the line. We know that personal pride is at stake. HR teams feel guilty because in many cases the HR employees will still be employed after they have told their friends and co-workers that their jobs are going away and escorting them out of the door.

Imagine how you would feel if you had to walk into a room of 50, 100 or 500 employees and let them know they are no longer employed? If you have a larger number, this may need a company-wide email. There is no way that email can convey the feelings you want to express in this situation.

This is a shitty part of the HR job, and in many cases, the HR folks lose their jobs as soon as all the lay off administrative paperwork is complete. They are literally working themselves out of a job and there is nothing to look forward to and no time to conduct personal job searches.

If you had to conduct a layoff, would you go into the situation happy and smiling or full of dread? Any normal person would be scared, nervous, and anxious. If you are an HR person that is keeping their job, you are embarrassed. These are not the emotions that make a smooth transition.

If you are early in your HR or management career, I make the following suggestion for a smoother transition. To this day, I still practice every bullet point below:

  • Put together an outline of talking points for anyone that has ANYTHING to say. Work with marketing if you can. Where we may not have had too much experience with lay offs, there is often a sr. marketing person in the company that understands internal messaging and can help with consistency.
  • Talk to your peers that have conducted lay offs and pick their brain for any advice they may have.
  • Talk to your CEO or a senior leader in the company and ask them for introductions to colleagues that have conducted layoffs. This process has been done many times with other companies so this is not the time to reinvent the wheel.
  • Do whatever you can to help employees find their next gig. Whether that is contacting external recruiters, conducting a resume workshop after hours or on the weekend, or helping folks with their LinkedIn profiles. When we have had large lay offs, we brought in a number of recruiters and held our own mini career fair. 
  • Send a message to ALL employees with instructions on how to respond to any press inquiries. Only pre-designated personnel should handle these inquiries with a pre-determined message.
  • Anyone who will have a face-to-face meeting with an employee that is being asked to leave should have the opportunity to practice with someone who has experience. I insist that first-time managers have a dress rehearsal. This allows for full comprehension and understanding about the intent and the impact of the messaging and gives time to clear up any confusion.
  • Remember offices in different time zones and double-check the timing of messages.

How this layoff is conducted will be the one thing that employees both staying and leaving the company will remember. I believe it is how a company is judged. This is the one event the employees being asked to leave will talk about and will be asked about. I don’t expect anyone to like being laid off. I am hopeful that with the right communication, messaging and intent, we have a shot at all employees respecting the business decision.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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