A Primer for Compassionately Dealing with the Emotions of Laid Off Employees

Businessman leaving his old job as he has been fired

It’s the hardest part about being the boss – you will inevitably have to lay off one or more employees at one point in your career.

If you haven’t had to do it before, you might wonder: Why is it so hard to lay off an employee? After all, it’s not your fault – you had no say in the matter. You’re just delivering the news.

The Emotions No one Wants to See

The truth is that employees can experience a range of emotions when they learn they’re about to lose their jobs. While some people take the news very well because they saw it coming, have other prospects, or didn’t like their jobs much anyway, the majority of people will be at least somewhat upset. Both reactions are normal, especially the one of shock and upset. That’s because their job was their livelihood and they depended on it.

Some normal reactions include crying, anger, shock, stony silence, and disbelief.

What to do with Tears

If the employee cries, try to give the employee some space to regain his or her dignity. They will probably be embarrassed, so hand over a tissue and give him or her a minute to get their composure back. Be patient, and offer to leave the room.

Dealing with Anger

If the employee is angry, listen to them rant. Ask if they would like a minute, and be patient. Stick to the facts and sympathize. Offer to take a break and meet again to discuss it after they have had a chance to take it all in.

Letting it Sink In

If the staff member didn’t see it coming, they may be shocked at the news of the layoff. This may result in silence, which is also completely normal. Let the employee have some time to take it in and to consider the implications. Respond to their questions the best you can, and offer to answer any more questions at a later time if they can’t think of any at the moment.

The “I’m Not Fired” Reaction

The employee may also be in denial. If so, be patient, and repeat any information you think is necessary. Empathize with the staff member. If the employee becomes angry or threatening, allow him or her to walk out of the meeting if they want to leave – don’t put yourself between the employee and the door. Offer to let them have a break, and reconvene at a later time if they want to get some fresh air.

Remember, all of these reactions are normal.   

You may feel guilty or responsible, even if it is not your fault. This is completely normal as well. After all, you were the bearer of bad news. One of the most difficult questions you will have to answer is, “why me?” The key is not to make it personal. Explain that layoffs come from above, and are usually a money-saving tactic.

The key to getting through the layoff process as painlessly as possible is to be prepared. Have all your information and paperwork at hand; be empathetic, sympathetic, but professional.