How to Say Goodbye During Downsizing and Times of Change

Every organization will undergo periods of change, whether it’s restructuring, a transition in leadership, or mass layoffs. Many leaders understand the importance of communicating these changes clearly and thoughtfully, but they struggle with implementation.

Recent economic changes and fear of recession have led many companies to have rampant eliminations and overall downsizing of their workforce. Here is a list of companies that have had major layoffs or hiring freezes.

Best Practices for Firing an Employee

There’s a scene in the 2011 movie “Moneyball” — based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling book about Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane and his pioneering use of analytics in Major League Baseball — where Beane (played by Brad Pitt) instructs Assistant GM Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) on how to let a player know he’s being cut, traded or sent down to the minor leagues. The approach is nearly perfect, with a few exceptions.

It should be short and to the point, as the movie depicts. But, it must also include any good news that lessens the blow to employees and the main reasoning behind your decision (the “why”). Keeping the message short and direct should always be the priority, though.

Before discussing best practices, I think it’s important to touch on the word “firing.” During my coaching sessions with leaders, I always tell them to avoid the word “firing” at all costs. It’s emotionally charged and will often lead to bad reactions. Being let go from your job is a very impactful part of your life. Because of this, it’s important to approach your message tactfully to ensure it’s received in the best possible way. Now on to the guide!

Step-by-Step Guide For Letting an Employee Go

  1. Begin by offering a prepared statement. Quickly let your employee know something is coming. In this clip, Jonah Hill’s character says, “Please have a seat. I need to talk to you for a minute.” (My recommendation is simply, “I wish I were reaching out with different news.”)
  2. Rip the band-aid off. Whatever the worst news is for the employee, just say it.
  3. If you have any good news, like severance or medical coverage, consider this the medicine that needs to be applied immediately to the bad news wound.
  4. Finally, now that the news is out, you can explain why.

Leaders often get preoccupied with the fear of having to share the news and try to soften the message by starting with how amazing the employee is. This sets them up for failure because if they were so amazing, you wouldn’t be letting them go. Trust me; this approach only makes YOU feel better, not your employee. Just give it to them straight.

Sample Statement

I wish I were reaching out with different news. [THE PREPARED STATEMENT]

I am ending your contract with ABC Company, effective June 1, 2021. [RIP THE BANDAID] Until then, you will be paid as expected. [APPLY MEDICINE]

Again, I wish I was sharing different news.

Reasons Why

Because your role as a <<insert title>> is to solve complex IT business issues, your technical skills need to be higher to succeed in this role.

Again, you’ll be paid through September 1, so we’ll have plenty of time to discuss how to transition your work.

I can answer any questions you have now or give you some time to process. Which would you prefer?

Only If Prompted

Examples include missing steps on a task after receiving instructions, misunderstanding where files are stored, and not recognizing quickly enough which programs are used for certain procedures.

Effective Communication Methods For Letting an Employee Go

Use a downward inflection of your voice, as if making a statement, rather than an upward inflection when you ask a question and then, REMAIN SILENT. Wait for their response. Be prepared with any of the following “block and bridge” statements:

  • I recognize this isn’t what you’d hoped to hear.
  • I understand and wish I were sharing different news.
  • Thanks for clarifying. Please know this is a business decision.
  • Right now, we need to focus on how to support the team as you transition your work to another consultant.

Whenever a change occurs, it seems natural to focus all your communication efforts on the directly affected individuals—those who are losing a job, reporting to a new leader, or being asked to take on added responsibilities. Still, all your employees are watching how you manage the changes.

During layoffs and leadership shakeups, productivity levels are more at risk. The more closed-door meetings you have, the more likely the negative buzz will infect water-cooler conversations. Here’s what you need to remember during those difficult times:

1. Beware of Tunnel Vision

Just because you’re not shouting the message from a loudspeaker doesn’t mean your employees can’t hear you. In announcing the changes and in follow-up presentations, keep your posture relaxed and your facial expressions neutral. It reduces the risk of generating unnecessary concerns for onlookers.

2. Look at Things From Your Employees’ Perspectives

They’re watching you very closely because how you treat impacted colleagues (who are likely their friends) is how they believe you’ll treat them under similar circumstances.

3. Uncertainty Grinds Work to a Halt

Employees do their best work when they can see how their individual efforts contribute to the company’s vision. If that vision seems compromised, they have nothing to anchor their efforts to and will—perhaps unconsciously—lengthen their lunch breaks, browse a little longer online and engage in gossip.

4. Before You Act…

During major changes, some things can’t be shared openly. Still, be as transparent as possible and demonstrate in your words and actions that all business decisions are for the good of the company—which ultimately benefits everyone. It will help steer people clear of the counterproductive fear factor.

Sharing the News With Your Organization

If you’re a leader, business owner, or manager, you will face losing team members through career moves or layoffs. When that time comes, you want to convey the news in a goodbye message that reflects positively on all concerned.

Why? Because if you don’t talk, others will.

Not saying anything – or worse, saying the wrong thing – may harm your company’s reputation. On the other hand, a well-crafted message can earn you the respect of those remaining and even attract new talent.

Begin by being respectful of the departing employee. People want to believe that their leaving matters. When you announce a departure, strive to show business acumen and humanity. To achieve that balance, consider these six questions when preparing a message:

Q: Was their position eliminated, or were they terminated for performance issues?
A: If they were held in high regard by colleagues, be generous in your comments. If they leave for a performance issue, the less said, the better.

Q: How well known and/or well-liked is the departing employee?
A: Know that the remaining employees will be concerned about this loss to their team.

Q: Were they a top performer?
A: If so, briefly highlight their accomplishments.

Q: Has this individual enhanced the organization’s reputation through their community involvement or work with nonprofits? Have they been a valued mentor?
A: Be sure to acknowledge these activities and, if needed, declare your continued support.

Q: Were they a key leader?
A: Remind employees that a transition plan is in place to ensure that the business is positioned for long-term success.

Q: How can others share personal thoughts and best wishes to the person departing?
A: Keep the lines of communication open. Nobody wants to feel like they have to sneak around to say goodbye to a colleague or friend.

With any departure, your primary goal should be helping the individual leave with their integrity intact. It reflects well on you and your organization. Remember: If you don’t proactively acknowledge departures, you leave a void that begs to be filled with speculation and rumors.

What to Say When Things Go Wrong

The bad news: Crises happen.
The good news: We can predict and plan for many of the issues and objections people can throw at you in any given business crisis.

My experience with many companies has taught me that 80% of crises result from downsizings, product/service mishaps, and all the “what ifs” we constantly fear but rarely plan for. A great leader is ready for the inevitable business crisis by having prepared, valid talking points. They also realize the importance of practicing their worst-case scenario responses now, so they’re ready when the time comes. When a difficult situation surfaces – and it will – a great leader just has to adapt their existing language to address the problem at hand.

A helpful hint: If things are going well for you, take advantage of the moment by thinking ahead: Use this crisis-free time to craft and rehearse the right messages—before you need them.

Spill the Truth: How to Let Someone Go – A Real Life Example

Q: Jill writes, “I was presenting to a group of clients, and my boss had a note delivered to me that said, ‘meet me in conference room A and bring all your things.’ When I arrived, he told me he was letting me go. It’s been about six months since that happened. I believe my boss handled the situation poorly, and I would love to know the best way to let someone go?”

A: Well, Jill, all professionals at some point in their career will be put to the “someone’s gotta-go test”. Sadly, many choke. Fueled by fear, bosses will stammer, stutter and blunder through any announcement that negatively impacts people. If they don’t hide behind political jargon, they’re likely to sneak out the backdoor after leaving a post-it note on your cube wall. Those who do it right…will spill the truth. They’ll be bold, they’ll be in-person, and they’ll be direct.

It takes courage to deliver bad news, and the best leaders are bold. It’s often too late by the time a bad-news delivery needs to be made, but if possible, boldness should start well before the crisis.

The Objective and Real Message That Leaders Need to Deliver

“We make decisions for the good of the company and the good of employees. Anytime we have to make business decisions that negatively impact employees for the good of the company, it’s never easy.” What this says is…we’re looking out for you, but we have to look out for the company too. Employees, who understand this during the good times, will understand it better during bad times.

Both sides of the employment equation are as equally free to part ways as they are to come together, but we often forget that once the honeymoon phase is over. If business decreases, all bets are off. Job loss can occur…sometimes, the reason is justifiable, and sometimes it isn’t. In either case…leaders must deliver the news in person. Because Jill, the rest of your team…the people who are staying…they’re watching. And don’t be fooled that you can keep something like this behind the boardroom door.

In-person delivery affords the most integrity to the person leaving and helps solidify your positive treatment of any employee. The news must be delivered on a live call if you can’t be in person.

Be Direct

For example, say, “I have some news to share with you. Effective today, your position with us is being eliminated. You will receive six weeks of severance, and your medical insurance remains in effect through the end of the year.”

After that, you can explain the reason why; although your recipient has probably tuned you out, do your best. You could say, “For the past six months, we have been evaluating our financial performance, and we’ve determined that in order to remain profitable, we must make our business structure as cost-effective as possible. Unfortunately, we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce headcount by 5%.”

Offer Empathy

“I am here to assist you through this change.” Let him or her know your expectations for the remainder of the day/week. For example, “You will not be expected to finish any projects or even be required to finish out the day. I want to help you retrieve any personal items at your desk, so let’s talk about what would work best for you. You can take your things with you now OR schedule a time to return and collect your items. Which would you prefer?”

What to Do If Asked “Why Me?” or “Did I Do Something Wrong?”

The best response to these kinds of responses is to listen. If you feel that you must respond, use silence fillers like “I understand your concerns”, “I know this is difficult”, or better yet, say, “It is never easy when business decisions result in job elimination.” Make it clear this is an unfortunate business decision.

Say Goodbye With Confidence

Are you still seeking more guidance on communicating with your team? Executive Coaching can help you get the exact results you want, a science-based approach to effectively show you how to lead from a position of power, enhance your image, and be taken more seriously. Reach out and contact me for more information.

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