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Your company’s struggling financially and you’re going to have to lay off staff. How you do it is important. In Canada, there are labour laws (Canada Labour Code) that employers must follow during a layoff. This blog isn’t about laws, it’s about love.

In most layoffs, if we’re honest, a little deadwood leaves; employees who perennially didn’t pull their weight despite being coached and encouraged, perhaps even warned, multiple times. But we lose valuable assets too, people who practice business love. These are smart, capable, motivated employees who cheerfully showed up each day willing to go that extra mile to get a job done. I’ll call them business lovers.

“It’s never a good moment, but it’s a better moment when done with love”

6,500 Canadians lost their jobs last month, according to Stats Canada. When I read that stat in the paper, I thought about the 6,500 conversations it involved. How many of those termination conversations were politely informal, cold and loveless? It got me thinking about the way people are laid off. I thought about talks I’d had with friends recently. Over the past year, a few of them, all business lovers, have been laid off. All were long-time employees, all valuable contributing team players at different companies. Each of them had a slightly different experience. I thought of my own experience. The #1 takeaway from my conversations: “It’s never a good moment, but it’s a better moment when done with love.” It’s better at the time and strange as it seems, better when that ex-employee looks back and there was a compassionate, human face on the experience.

In our society, jobs still define us. We are what we do.

What’s the number one question people ask each other at dinners or parties when they meet for the first time: “What do you do?” When you take the ‘what I do’ away from someone, especially when it comes out of the blue, it’s a shocking experience for them. They think (although in the moment it’s probably never framed quite so coherently): “[sinking feeling in stomach] that’s what I did [panic], what do I do now [more panic]?” Dismissal from work ranks high on the famous Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, a report from the late 1960s, still valid today, which studied the top 43 most stressful life events that can contribute to illness.

Business owners, managers, HR: If it’s part of your job description to hire, fire and also lay off in troubled times, you need to own it. If you haven’t had any formal training in letting people go, try to get some. It can be emotional on both sides; yours and the employee you have to let go. Wear your big girl or big boy pants and take the time, be respectful, show the love. Sure, it can get a little tricky, but it’s a lot trickier for the employee whose entire life changes dramatically in the 15 seconds it takes you to say: “We have to lay you off.”

Understand the impact you’re going to have on a person’s life in those few seconds. In planning for the layoff, while preparing documentation, take a moment to ask yourself: “If I were to be laid off, how would I want it to be done?” Think about the tone of the conversation you will have. Here’s my take:

  1. Make sure the location you choose is a place where the conversation cannot be overheard, a place that also allows that person freedom of emotion. It’s an emotional time.
  2. Don’t simply show up at an employee’s desk with the proverbial pink slip, HR package and a rehearsed HR spiel. Make your words heartfelt and personal.
  3. Especially in the case of a business lover, that person did nothing wrong, they’re a victim of financial circumstances. Focus on that. Tell them they were valued and appreciated. Emphasize and reiterate.
  4. Expect anger or grief, or even a complete absence of both, everyone’s emotional makeup is different.
  5. Don’t get try to get the conversation over as quickly as possible.
  6. Give them a chance to speak, an opportunity to let out emotions and ask questions about anything they want to ask.
  7. Let them know they can contact you if there’s something they’ve forgotten to ask.
  8. Follow up! If you’ve promised a reference letter or the services of a placement firm to help them transition to a new job or learn a new skill set, provide the letter and the firm’s contact information the same day. If you can’t do it the same day, do it in the week immediately following. Don’t wait for the ex-employee to be forced to follow-up with you.
  9. Give them an opportunity to say goodbye to their colleagues, if they wish. Many people never go back to their place of employment after a layoff, so this allows for a little closure. The hugs, handshakes and the “I can’t believe this is happening and I’m really going to miss you” comments from colleagues (and yes, even the tears) are surprisingly comforting to many people who have just been laid off.
  10. Speak to the people who are still there. There’s nothing like losing your colleague in a layoff to start the rumour mill: Am I gonna be next?

And finally … DON’T show the cheese video!

Who Moved My Cheese? is an allegorical video about reinventing yourself. It’s often shown to employees who are going to be laid off. Two little mice — Sniff and Scurry — and two tiny humans — Hem and Haw — live in a maze. For years, they’ve relied on a seemingly never-ending pile of cheese. The pile dwindles, until one day it’s gone. The characters’ names give you a good idea of what they do next … it’s time for all four to get motivated and find a new cheese pile. If you’re going to show that cheesy video, make sure you explain why you’re showing it, otherwise you cause panic in the minds of the watchers. You provoke tense conversations later around the water cooler or in the kitchen or during after-hours phone calls, texts and emails between employees: “What is the company saying to us?” “What do you think that movie meant?” “Are we going to lose our jobs?” “Do they see us as mice?

Who moved my Cheese? The Movie by Dr. Spencer Johnson

Yes, it is a lousy job laying someone of; nobody wants to do it, but somebody’s gotta do it. If you’re the one who draws the short straw by virtue of your position, make sure you do it right. Forced to lay off employees: do it with love.

Been laid off? Was it done with love, let me know? Have additional ideas for the ‘How to do it with love’ list?  Send them to me. #DoitwithLove

A  unique approach to laying people off:

Is it possible to lay people off nicely. One company’s quest to blend rejection and kindness