Bouncing back from a layoff – and how to lay people off with empathy

July 14, 2022

Whether you’re in the seat of the employee or the employer, layoffs are difficult. As an employee, getting news of being let go is heartbreaking, can trigger shame and confusion, and for most people, can be life-changing. As an employer, feelings of guilt and sadness at having to let go of one (or more) of your team members can be very real, let alone managing the legal obligations and company risk.

I’ve been on both sides of the discussion – after getting laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, I felt many of the emotions that I see being expressed on my current LinkedIn feed, with the surge of layoffs and rescinded job offers. I remember the fear of uncertainty, panic and shame, both from the pandemic and the loss of my job, all at once. I also remember reflecting on the process and walking away from it, promising myself to learn and do better by anyone I may ever have to let go of, in the future. 

Being a people manager for over seven years, I’m very familiar with the responsibility that comes with communicating the news of a layoff. Over the years (and because I went through one as an employee), I’ve had the chance to reflect on some important things to do, when navigating the challenges of laying people off.

So, let’s dive into both sides: how to bounce back from a layoff, and how to lay people off with empathy.

Bouncing back after a layoff 

The aftermath of a layoff is a difficult time. Let’s call it for what it is - it’s a life event. And it might not be one of those life events you’re excited to share on your social media profile, either. It can cause you to question why you weren’t enough, how you missed the signs, and wonder about your capability. In other words, it causes a serious wave of imposter syndrome to take over, on top of the added stress of how to move forward, pay your bills, and care for yourself and people in your life. 

After my layoff, I was overwhelmed with a mix of feelings. Shock, because I thought of myself as a high-performer; I never thought I would be the one to be let go. Then, came feelings of shame, along with unanswerable questions: How will I tell my partner? Am I actually good at my job? And finally, trauma and panic settled in. I absorbed the whole situation, and realized that my industry, HR, was suffering – a quick search told me there were no HR roles available as the world went into a global lockdown.

Despite all of these emotions, I did my best to begin the road to recovery. These are the crucial steps I took, and in sharing them, I hope that you’ll be able to learn from my experience.

Involve your support system

Don’t do what I did, and alienate those who are in your support system. While the shock may take some time to wear off, it’s important to reach out to those who are closest to you, to allow them to be part of the journey. Now is not the time for isolation; learn from those who have gone through this before, and lean on people who you trust to start to rebuild your confidence.

Evaluate your next move

If you’re able to, take this opportunity to evaluate your career, and research other industries and roles that interest you. 

After digesting my layoff, I gave myself time to self-reflect, and took a good look at my lifestyle. I had to adjust my personal budget and cut out unnecessary spending (did I learn to cut my own hair because of the pandemic? Or budget? I still don’t know…). Then I applied for EI. Then, I thought about what I hoped to get out of my career. 

This is the perfect time to decide: do you want a job, or your dream job? Of course, times are pressing; inflation and the cost of living may push you to take whatever job is available. Personally, I had a list of jobs I’d be willing to take in a pinch, vs. careers I wanted. It is a useful exercise during any life event to ask yourself: what are you really looking for in your next move?

The good news is that the pandemic saw major change in careers for thousands of people, and has evolved the profile of the ‘perfect candidate’ in the eyes of recruiters. It’s also made career gaps much more acceptable; you’d be hard-pressed to find a recruiter who now holds a career change, or gap (due to unemployment or otherwise) during the pandemic as a red-flag. And if they are pressing you on it or giving the impression that it is, you may not want to work with that organization in the first place. 

Network with intention

My next piece of advice is to network with intention. In my case, I started building my network by prioritizing people in the HR community that I knew had ears on the ground: business influencers that could connect me to people who might be hiring, and also, people that I had helped in the past who may be able to share advice or make a connection. 

For this step, you’ll want to prepare how you’ll talk to your network about the layoff, and how you’ll speak about the company. You’ll also need to give thought to what you’re hoping for from each conversation (e.g. a referral, connection, advice, etc.). Ensure your conversations have a purpose because people are busy, and they are doing you the favour.

Organize yourself, and your applications 

The last step, of course, is to start applying. But this ties back to my first point: don’t limit yourself to only the jobs available in your current industry. Take a look at other industries that interest you, and consider roles that you can transition into. The way I did this is by creating a spreadsheet that had three sections: open jobs that I could apply to right away, industries that I was interested in, and people I could reach out to within those industries. 

The good news is there isn’t as much stigma around layoffs as there has been in the past. In fact, there’s a lot more support around it now that didn’t exist even two years ago. It isn’t a taboo subject; people are openly sharing their layoff experiences on LinkedIn, and there’s comfort in being part of the masses. Employees are changing the narrative and building a sense of community out of these distressing times. So, it shouldn’t be jarring to others if you reach out during your job search. 

The dos and don’ts of laying off with empathy

On the other side of things, being an employer tasked with conducting a layoff is also tough. Many companies will try to mitigate risks as much as possible, but in my experience, the best way to handle layoffs is to simply treat people like people, not just employees. With that being said, here are some dos and don’ts for laying people off with empathy.

DO explore alternatives

In the case of mass layoffs, step one is something that can be done before a layoff. Work with leadership to evaluate other options, and consider what the company has done to prevent laying people off. Is it possible to cut out any tools, systems, or software costs? Has your company put a hiring freeze in place? Can you pause or reduce any bonus structures for the time being? These are all things that can be examined as options before making the decision to lay employees off. 

DO plan communications 

Prepare both internal and external communications. Internally, you’ll have to plan how to announce the layoff to those directly impacted; arrange who will be accountable for communication, whether it be a manager or other leadership. Make sure the medium of communication is appropriate (yes – your words matter!); the timing matters, and so does the visual in a virtual world. Also plan how you’ll speak about it to remaining employees, especially those left on teams that see the most loss. 

Externally, ensure that your messaging is consistent. For larger companies and/or large-scale layoffs, you may have to prepare a standby public statement for the media.

DO provide support

Allocate a remaining team member to be focused on support. Their role is to be the liaison for people with questions, concerns, or requests. A great idea that I’ve seen many people initiate to support employees is creating a Google Sheets page outlining the skills and abilities of those impacted, and distributing it amongst their network. If you can afford it, provide career outplacement services in addition to supporting them via positive reference letters, etc.   

DO make sure you have all the information ready 

Inevitably, employees will have a ton of questions after being laid off. It’s important to have all the data, numbers, and relative information ready to share, so employees understand the reasoning behind each decision. 

DON’T dehumanize the experience

Many businesses will approach a layoff conservatively, by doing exactly what their lawyers tell them to do. While it’s important to listen to legal counsel, it doesn’t mean you have to be cold and robotic. When possible, try to deliver the news through a person, rather than an email. Ultimately, you want to treat people humanely, and understand that this will be tough for them to hear. 

DON’T make it about you 

Layoffs are a hard time for all parties, but don’t make a layoff meeting about you. Saying things like, “I’m really nervous because I’ve never had to do this before”, or “I really fought for you to stay” doesn’t minimize the impact of the layoff for the employee. 

DON’T leave remaining employees in the dark

This ties back to communications: don’t leave the rest of your team in the dark about a layoff. Ensure they understand who is impacted, and the reasoning. Not only is it important for them to know for their own work, but this type of transparency builds trust within the company.

DON’T underestimate the importance of details

The aftermath for impacted employees will be very important to them, so ensure you have answers to questions like “What am I getting?”. These details need to be readily available, whether you inform them right away, or through an email sent shortly after. 

Next steps

If you’re going through a layoff, here are a few actionable steps for you to tackle right now:

  • Revamp your LinkedIn account and enable #OpenToWork on your profile
  • Take a look at your university alumni page for openings and/or people to network with
  • Read more about handling layoffs during the pandemic on our blog

I know this is a challenging thing to navigate, but it’s not impossible. I’ve been there, and while it takes some time and effort to bounce back, you will. And for employers, just remember to treat your people like people, and make it a human experience. Layoffs are never easy, but by remembering that we’re all humans before we are employees, they become just a little bit more bearable. 

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Hey there 👋 my name is Andrea Bartlett.

I’m the Director of HR at Humi, and I’m obsessed with all things people and human resources. Throughout my time working in a range of industries, I’ve learned that one thing is clear: the world of work is changing and HR professionals are leading the charge. 

I believe that businesses should know their people as well as they know their product. But people are complex, and the solutions aren’t always easy. That’s how Think with Humi will help. 

Written by me, this newsletter is designed to give you insight into the relevant and raw people challenges, and give you the tools to enable you to continuously to shape the future of work. 

Written by a people leader, for people leaders.