How Fearless Leaders handle layoffs


This is the hardest thing you’ll have to do.


“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.
That’s what this storm’s all about.”


In 2008, right at the tail end of the recession, after it seemed that all the layoffs had happened and my architect husband and I had hung on to our jobs, two things happened. My husband was suddenly laid off (is there any other kind of layoff than sudden from the employee point of view?) and soon after, my work hours were reduced to three-quarter time and then to half-time.

As a family, it felt like we were cut off, dangling by a thread. I struggled to keep my relevance—and what was left of my job—by proposing in-house projects we could tackle while billable projects were on hold.


Today I listen and coach clients who find themselves in great distress on the leadership side of a layoff. It’s agonizing to make decisions that will leave people jobless, affect their home life, and impact the trajectory of their careers. Architecture, engineering, and related fields often have a lag time in feeling the impact of a downturn, but the waves of this current recession continue to hit the shore.
Here are some ways to handle this most difficult decision and the myriad actions that follow:




“Leaders don’t inflict pain, they share pain.”



Tee it up
If you’ve been practicing ‘radical transparency,’ then the announcement of layoffs (or work share or furloughs) shouldn’t come as a shock. You’ve been sharing in real time the changing status of projects and the pipeline, letting people know what’s being considered. You’ve asked everyone for ideas on efficiency and client care. You don’t hold back or speak in code. (Remember, when they’re in the dark, people tend to imagine things are far worse than they are. That’s how rumors and doubt begin to erode connection and trust.)


Get ready
Make necessary logistical decisions about timing, notice, compensation, continuing benefits, and access to company documents. Prepare and time communications to clients as well as staff. Have everything decided and in place before the announcements. Stay on top of this and don’t underestimate the time, logistics, and thoughtful messaging it will take.


Be true
Make the announcement in a manner consistent with your firm’s values and culture. Be sure to inform the people you’re retaining as well as those who will be leaving. Share the reasons, show the struggle, but continue to convey confidence, encouragement, and commitment.


Give support
One leadership team immediately followed their Zoom layoff announcements with private meetings between each employee and HR staff. They were ready with information and documents to guide each person through their severance pay, unemployment application, and COBRA/ACA options. Rather than a hard stop, employees left the firm with everything in place for their transition, including approved portfolio content and letters of recommendation in hand.


Stay in touch
Set a schedule for check in calls with those you hate to lose. See how they’re doing, where they land, what they’re learning.  Let them know you value them— as a resource, a scout, an advocate for your firm. This protects your good reputation as an employer of choice, and keeps the door open for the best to rejoin your team with a new level of experience.


Take care
This is painful work. Now that you’ve given your all to these tough decisions, some of which weigh heavy on your heart, turn to your own needs. Talk to someone. Take care of yourself in the ways you find restful and restorative. Let the mistakes and missteps pass. You’ve reset the firm’s footing for the work at hand.


Images: Tulalip Shore, Washington; Musée des Beaux-arts de Nancy; Ronchamp
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  1. Jenny on September 10, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Very good! I was just listening to an episode of How I Built This (an NPR podcast–do you listen to it?) with Airbnb’s Brian Chesky and he mentioned one thing they did when they laid off 25% of their company this year was to repurpose their recruiting department into an outboarding department to help everyone find placement in new jobs. I thought that was brilliant and so thoughtful.

    • Nora on September 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

      Yes, reassignment of people to important tasks is indeed a brilliant and thoughtful first step for leaders to consider. That’s a great example of applying a team’s skills to support their people.

  2. Josh on September 10, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks, Nora. Letting someone go is painful for all parties. I’ve seen it from the inside of the cold, corporate world, and I’ve had to do it myself. This is a really thoughtful and wonderful guide.

    • Nora on September 10, 2020 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks, Josh.

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