Inclusion, if well executed, touches every part of a corporation, even one that’s most uncomfortable to talk about: layoffs and terminations.
In fact, these career transitions are arguably the most critical points in the employee life cycle to embed an inclusive mindset into the culture of your organization. Inclusion essentially means a person feels invited to, comfortable in, and psychologically safe engaging with others in a workplace. It might seem impossible to align inclusion with job loss because the common misconception is that inclusion should feel good or be easy.
Inclusion takes effort, thought, and mindful consideration before taking any action. Here are some ways to embed an inclusive mindset around firing and layoffs.
Craft messages with empathy and respect
An inclusive organization faced with layoffs or terminations should consider two things before developing their strategy. First, imagine you must lay off or fire your favorite, most beloved family member or friend. How would you approach that? Second, imagine you are being laid off or fired by your favorite, most beloved family member. What might your expectations be?
Adopting these perspectives doesn’t make it easier to impact someone’s job adversely, but it does create empathy for the experience. Employers should take deliberate efforts to make sure anyone responsible for firing or laying-off staff have messaging to help them communicate legally and with compassion.
Avoid surprising people
Sales are down. The organization is evolving. Business needs have shifted. Performance is not up to par. Tell the real story about what is happening, and equip leaders to tell the story to their teams. If you know the company will suffer job loss, say so. If you know there will be layoffs and when they will start and end, say that. If you know someone is missing the mark on performance, give and document the feedback. Don’t bury difficult news in complex messaging or try to hide that layoffs are coming. Surprise layoffs and firings can cause people to feel unprepared or manipulated.
I’ve experienced employers who handled firings and layoffs by sending a meeting invite to an employee who was going to be let go. Word soon spread about how layoffs and terminations were happening, and any unexpected meeting invite caused employees to panic organization-wide. In a matter of days, people were packing their desks “just in case,” and no one felt safe or engaged at work.
According to Gallup, an actively disengaged employee costs their organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34%. Imagine if the organization had been upfront about needing to let people go in certain areas and in what time frame. There certainly would still be angst, but instead of widespread panic, appropriate messaging would set expectations so people not likely to be impacted could continue their work, and those who might be affected could make informed decisions and prepare.
Ensure senior leaders are included
When an organization needs to cut staff to conserve costs, there is no stronger inclusivity message than ensuring senior leaders share the impact. Ensure prominent roles, and visible leaders are willing to make changes and know how to talk about those changes to their employees. Very often, layoffs hit junior-level employees, while senior leaders still receive bonuses and incentives. Inclusivity means being thoughtful about how everyone can be invited to support changes in an organization. Consider unique and courageous options like incentivizing voluntary departures, or where the law allows, having leaders forgo bonuses.
There is seemingly no “right” time for a layoff or to fire a person, but there are a few time frames that employers should keep in mind if they can. The month before and the month after the winter holidays in the U.S. is not ideal. People are likely spending big dollars on gifts or travel, which they might avoid if their finances were impacted. Also, holiday layoffs put people in situations where friends and family are prone to ask about their loss of employment because the holidays are often a time when people catch up. The same considerations can apply for vacations an employee may have prescheduled. Sometimes firing someone must happen quickly, but for planned layoffs or firings, being mindful of the timing demonstrates respect for employee’s invested tenure and their personal commitments.
Leaving a job is akin to a breakup. People have long-standing relationships with colleagues, so an unexpected departure can fracture relationships at a time when people may need support the most. Research in the Lancet has estimated that 1 in 5 suicide deaths worldwide is tied to unemployment.
Recently, I learned a former colleague was fired, so I gave him a call to check in. He was disappointed about being fired but mostly lamented over how close friends and mentors from work had stopped speaking to him overnight. Employees might not know they can continue to talk to former colleagues. Therefore, it may be helpful to share that it is okay to continue to engage with people who have left the company on nonwork related topics.
Another way to support laid-off employees is to help them manage the break in employment. Organizations can consider offering transitional career services through an outside firm to help people find new job opportunities. Sometimes companies provide discounted access to mental health services or even extend layoff packages that include salary continuance for a length of time.
There is a chance that people might feel discarded, undervalued, or even penalized when they are asked to leave, even with a severance package. It is helpful to view laid-off employees as talented workers who are returning to the marketplace. They may become a customer or vendor in the future. Be thoughtful about how you want former employees to feel, speak about, or engage with your organization post-employment.
Inclusion is about being deliberately mindful about how people experience your organization. While being laid off or fired is rarely pleasant, it can be thoughtfully executed to protect employees who leave and those who stay.
Amber Cabral is a former Fortune 1 executive who is now a diversity and inclusion consultant to major retailers and the Fortune 500 at her company CabralCo.