Conducting Compassionate Layoffs During a Crisis: Best Practices in the Age of Zoom

August 15th, 2022

How did you treat your employees during the COVID-19 crisis? According to LinkedIn talent marketing consultant Tom Ventimiglia, that’s a question companies will be answering for a long time to come.

The stakes are high right now. Nobody quite knows what the business landscape will look like in the (near) future. It may well mean layoffs in either the short or long term. Nobody wants to do that, but ultimately ensuring the viability of your business is the main goal. It’s just a fact of life in any business climate: layoffs happen sometimes. Now, when nobody is sure of how the economy is going to shake out post-COVID, we might be seeing many more of them.

But what’s odd about our current times: You just might be competing to hire back your laid-off employees when the dust settles and the economy improves. How you’ve treated them during this crisis is critical to preserving your company’s reputation and brand. Now more than ever, if you have to lay people off, it’s crucial to do it compassionately. Not only is it good karma, it’s good for your business.

Recently, GetFive CEO Darren Kimball and Teri Coyne, director of programs, senior leadership, and career coach at GetFive, conducted a on this timely and important topic. In case you missed it, here’s a recap:


Compassionate Layoffs

A compassionate layoff is the thoughtful and generous off-boarding process that balances the needs of the employees and the organization. It’s the execution of a well-defined process that focuses on demonstrating care, maintaining dignity, and garnering trust. Why does it matter? The impact of those layoffs reverberates throughout your organization and into the community as well. Layoffs aren’t just about your departing employees. They touch your employer brand and your surviving employees, and can be reflected on social media and in the community. Let’s look at each of those factors.


Employer Brand

A good employer brand reflects and defines the culture and energy of the workplace. It’s how the outside world sees you as well. Your brand communicates to employees that they are valued and integral to the success of the organization. And if and when the time comes that the organization needs to restructure, the care that is applied to the offboarding process is critical to your brand’s reputation.

One of the main drivers of the impact layoffs can have on your brand is the explosion of the jobs website Glassdoor. In 2010, Glassdoor had 2 million unique visits each month. This year, that number is 60 million. You probably know that it allows anonymous comments and ratings of businesses. When a company goes through layoffs, employees tend to go to Glassdoor to report poorly handled off-boarding. That’s the nice way of saying it. In their heightened emotional states, they can and do vent all of their frustrations in exquisite detail. You’ll see it reflected in your company’s rating. Those negative reviews and ratings can wreak havoc with your hiring process. The majority of job seekers turn to Glassdoor to check out companies they’re considering, and too many negative reviews will sour interested candidates very quickly.

At the end of the day, your employer brand is critical to long-term shareholder wealth creation. Glassdoor itself conducted an economic research study and found that the best places to work saw a 7.2% spike in annualized returns relative to the S&P 500. The lowest-rated companies saw a drop of 2.7%. For a midsize company, this is literally a billion-dollar difference.

For a CFO or someone in your organization who is asking about the ROI of investing in outplacement or other services for off-boarded employees, the key is connecting the case for defending your employer brand with the ability to compete for the best talent in your sector, which in turn is responsible for the long-term superior returns that emanate from employing the best talent.


Surviving Employees

Surviving employees are the people left behind after a layoff. The ones whose jobs were spared. Survivors are impacted by the news of layoffs and how they were handled. When they feel their colleagues are taken care of and treated with respect, it eases their concerns about themselves and their peers. Conversely, when they see friends and colleagues who were unceremoniously given a pink slip with no help making the transition and no off-boarding, it paints a grim picture of how much the company values its employees.

Surviving employees often do impact the brand and the overall effectiveness of the organization. Job satisfaction, performance, commitment, and morale can decline sharply after a layoff, even more so if that layoff is handled poorly.


Offboarded Employees

Obviously the people most impacted by a layoff are the employees whose jobs are going away. In a shifting job market, the most important thing an off-boarded employee needs is support. The process of landing a new opportunity can require creative thinking, perseverance, and accountability. Support, resources, and guidance during this time are critical.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that historically, it takes people about 16 weeks to find a new job after being out of work for whatever reason. The actual numbers fluctuate based on unemployment rates and the economy. Going into 2020, we had a hot job market because of rock-bottom unemployment numbers, but even so, the average time it took for a candidate to land a job was 21.6 weeks. That’s historically much higher than the standard.

So now with the ever-shifting changes in the market, we can probably assume the job transition time frame may increase. What does that mean for offboarding? We want to make sure we’re not just taking care of employees from a severance side, but also from a support side and helping them navigate what could potentially be a longer job search than what most people would expect.


Community/Social Media

Employees who have been laid off have a broad and expansive network that includes their friends, peers, colleagues, and professional associates. Their “laid off” story impacts a multitude of impressions about your brand. And the word gets out there. That “laid off” story has legs, and can create a vast number of impressions about your brand.


Best Practices for Layoffs in the Age of Zoom

Conducting layoffs is a potential minefield in the best of times. You need to be prepared beforehand, have all of your information ready, and practice for this important, life-changing meeting. But now, with social distancing not going anywhere anytime soon, you may have to do it all via Zoom or another meeting software platform, adding a greater level of uncertainty to the mix.

Steps in this crucial process:


  1. Articulate the rationale and business case for the layoff
  2. Timing of notification and effective date of separation
  3. Location of the notification meeting
  4. Severance package
  5. Separation paperwork
  6. Build a communication plan
  7. Draft talking points
  8. Coach and train managers to deliver the message
  9. Determine transition support and outplacement assistance
  10. Determine notification support
  11. Conduct notification meeting
  12. Communicate with other employees
  13. Get back to work

Let’s look at some of the most important points in more detail.


Articulate the Rationale/ Business Case

It’s about business. It isn’t personal. The reasons why should come from the executive level to senior and line managers. Everyone involved in the process needs to be clear about what’s happening and why. It is important to emphasize that you’ve explored all other options and are deploying other cost-cutting measures. Make sure line managers or anyone conducting the layoffs understand that a layoff is defined as the elimination of a particular job or function, and is not about the person.


Before the Meeting

If multiple employees are being laid off, conducting meetings with each impacted individual is the best approach. If possible, the HR representative should be present. In this age of social distancing, you may have to use Zoom or another meeting platform. Here are some tips for what to do before it all goes down:


  • Send a meeting invitation to the employee only. Then send a separate invite to the HR Rep (or other attendees).
  • Coordinate timing and delivery of important documents.
  • Make sure the meeting is as secure as possible. Set up a password for the meeting and share it with participants.
  • Everyone should be visible on camera.
  • Don’t allow anyone to join the meeting until the host has arrived.

Use Waiting Room (on ZOOM) so you can allow users into the room


Coach and Train Managers to Deliver the Message

This is one of the most important meetings of anyone’s life, so it’s essential that you’re prepared. Don’t go in cold! Some suggestions for prepping for the meeting:


  • Draft a script of the conversation and give it to everyone involved.
  • Set up a practice session and coach line managers on how this will work (if you need to, you can coach a few managers at once).
  • Make sure all parties are clear on their roles in the conversation.
  • Practice some “What if” scenarios.
  • Have them deliver the news to you and give them feedback.

If you or your managers are using technology, that adds another layer of unpredictability to the mix. Here are some tech tips for ensuring you have a smooth meeting:


  • Do a tech check an hour before your meetings (and don’t forget to have a backup plan).
  • Remove anything from view that could be distracting and try to prevent disruptions.
  • Turn off your cell phone.
  • Before you start, confirm the employee can hear and see you and other participants.
  • Explain why you are there and introduce the other participants and then follow the practiced script.
  • Use cheat sheets! Place reminders of important points around your monitor, but out of view of the camera, to help keep you moving in the right direction. This also ensures you won’t forget anything.
  • Look at the camera to approximate eye contact.
  • Lean forward, toward the camera, and speak a bit slower than usual.
  • Make space for their response. Don’t plow through it without giving them time to say something.
  • Stick to the script as much as possible, while allowing for questions.
  • Show empathy by nodding and acknowledging feelings but don’t talk about yourself. Demonstrate empathy by reflecting back what they might say: “I understand that this is not what you expected to hear.”


Determine Transition Support and Outplacement Assistance

The goal is to make sure the employee feels supported and is given tools that help them feel like they can move forward positively.


  • Give them clear direction on next steps, repeating them more than once.
  • Consider putting together a checklist for employees to help step them through what they need to do for unemployment.
  • Stress availability of Employee Assistance to cope with additional stressors and uncertainty.
  • Ensure a smooth handoff to your outplacement partner.
  • Consider a check-in call/email to see how the employee is doing, especially if they were taking it hard.

Unprecedent Times Remind Us of Outplacement’s Critical Role

It’s an unprecedented time in our history, with an extraordinary amount of uncertainty for the exiting employees. And for your organization, the stakes have never been higher in terms of reputation management, thanks to sites like Glassdoor. That’s why the role of the outplacement provider is critical.

Outplacement steps in to create a high touch relationship and a structure to support moving forward in the space where the employer-employee relationship has been severed. Connecting your employees to professionally certified coaches will help them navigate the shifting market and build winning strategies. For more information on navigating this delicate process, download The Definitive Guide to Offboarding and Employee Transitions.


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