Blog: Care and empathy must for HR professionals during layoffs

Employee Relations

Care and empathy must for HR professionals during layoffs

HR professionals often face instances in their career where they need to relay some tough decisions to the employees. Read on to find out how should one handle such situations.
Care and empathy must for HR professionals during layoffs

I happened to watch a video which was going viral in social media yesterday.  The core of the video was a lay off a conversation between an HR representative and the employee of one of the big IT companies in India.

It was a hard conversation as an employee was asked to leave the company citing cost rationalization to be the major reason driving the decision. Somehow this entire conversation was recorded and later was shared in social media.  While this kind of situation where an employee is asked to leave is pretty common in IT Industry but what hit me hard, despite me representing the same Industry and same HR fraternity, was the conversation initiated by the fellow HR fraternity member.  I was pained with the insensitivity demonstrated by my fellow professional in the entire conversation. 

While it is a fact that such unpleasant communication is to be led by HR, which is still fine as this is the part of the job for people who have opted for such professions. However, one should never forget that one deals with humans and not machines when such conversations are to be initiated.  We need to deal with such situations with utmost care, humility, sensitivities, and empathy.  Today it is the person who is being communicated this message, tomorrow it could the person who is conveying this difficult message. Would one like to be treated the same way as one is communicating it?  HR professionals should look at such conversations beyond the task or job.  It is an unfortunate event when such message is to be conveyed. Most of the times, we don’t have the idea on the impact such decisions create in the lives of people.

I have come across many such stories, where the impact was severe and it was just not limited to the employee himself or herself.  In such situations, can we remain humane, sensitive and empathetic to the person who is being told about this decision. The life may be coming to stand still for him or her for some time. Can we be the support to the person for some time?  We should remember that the real test of professionalism and humanity happens during these tough situations.  We should always remain Humane.  People never forget such moments in their life and if we are able to make them feel little better just by listening to their situations, needs and be supportive to the extent possible, they would always remember this gesture of ours and would remain a true Brand Ambassador to us and the company despite going through such a situation.   

It is a fact that organizations exist to generate wealth and not to operate for charity.  However, when an organization has a lot of cost pressure, before reaching to the decision of asking employees to leave, other important measures should be looked at such as cutting down on indirect costs, including exploring if salary cut to be introduced in an extremely difficult situation.  People are matured enough to understand the situation and would accept this decision as long as leadership remains truthful and speak about it genuinely.  Asking someone to leave the organization on account of business reasons must be the last resort.  

After such a decision is reached when certain employees need to be asked to leave the organization, a careful consideration is to be given to the execution as the plan to execute such decision is more critical than the decision itself.   It is certainly an unfortunate event to convey such a note to an employee, however, in the interest of the business and inculcating the culture of meritocracy such difficult decisions are taken by the company from time to time.  To value the association with the separating employee including being sensitive to the entire conversation, such conversations must be carried out in an open and comfortable environment where HR and Project Leadership representation must be enforced.  They must need to give person the space to settle down, give a lot of listening and openly and genuinely share how such decision was reached.  Listening and being sensitive and humane is the key to hold such conversation.  What I did not like about the recorded conversation which I heard on social media yesterday, the entire execution was managed over the phone. This must never happen!

HR and everybody in leadership must need to appreciate human sensitivities and must need to act as a humane employer. The manpower rationalization is an emotionally challenging activity for all the stakeholders, and some of the tips could enable managing this situation better – 

  • Ensure all possible solutions have been explored before reaching to the decision of asking somebody to leave the company.  

  • Be genuine on reasons including identification of employees for executing the decision. Consistency on such decisions brings a lot of credibility to the organization. 

  • Work out a humane severance package, even if it is more than the notice clause mentioned in the appointment letter.  Be sensitive to the practical needs.

  • Make provisions to retain an employee on the rolls during severance time frame (even if an employee is not expected to report in office). This gives a lot of psychological boost to an employee while facing interviews outside with potential future employers. 

  • Make provisions for all the benefits till last day of the employee including mediclaim etc. 

  • Set up an in-person meeting for conveying this unfortunate message to the employee.  Do provide a lot of space, and listening to the employee.  It might not have been expected by the employee that this meeting would turn out to be last formal meeting in the company.  Be sensitive to such conversation. 

  • Listen to the needs of the employee. Clarify your stand in an empathetic manner. 

  • Offer personal help and support. It helps. I have provided a lot of references to some of the employees with whom I had to carry out such a difficult conversation in my career.  
  • As an organization, if you are open to, explore outplacement options for such employees.  

  • Ensure you reassure employee about positive background checks throughout in future.  Besides, this decision should not blacklist employee from the company.  

  • Come what may never let employee feel disrespectful in the entire conversation including post communication treatment and experiences.   

  • Don’t mistreat employee by escorting him or her to exit door soon after the conversation. Provide sufficient time to the employee to go back to his or her desk, collect his or her personal belongings, let the employee spend the day in office and leave when he or she feels comfortable during the day or at the end of the day of communication.  

  • If you have fear of negative action from the employee in terms of spreading negativity, sending emails to customers, deleting important documents and information from IT systems, and have fear of wrongdoing, do sensitize employee in a polite manner before you conclude the discussion about company trusting employee on ensuring no negative impact to the organisation.  Reinforce the trust, and also share the impact in case of wrong doing so that employee is aware of his or her actions.  Don’t let your fear overpower the message of trust you can leave at that stage.  Employees are matured and understand the same as well. I never experienced anything wrong when I had shown immense trust on parting employees despite such unfortunate conversations. 

  • Never talk negatively about the exiting employee to his/her fellow colleagues post the exit. Maintaining respect and dignity, even when the person is not there in company, is most critical part of such execution.

  • Last but not the least, be humane at every touch point.  
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Topics: Employee Relations, C-Suite, Leadership, Strategic HR

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