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HR Insights: Handling layoffs with emotional intelligence

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Let's be clear up front: Firing an employee is about that person, not you. Your focus during the layoff process should be to balance your professionalism with their well-being.

"It's difficult to be the face of a company's unpopular decision, but it doesn't diminish the empathy we have for those affected. We care about these people, some of whom we've worked very closely [with] for a long time," says Bryan Otte, founder and CEO of HRPlus, and formerly chief human resource officer at SmartBrief. "And if the economy is a mess, as it is today, the pressure on [those getting fired] is practically unbearable. I can say from experience, and as someone who coaches others, that it never gets easier."

While plenty of articles explain how to make a dismissal easier on the person exiting the company, few talk about the impact terminating employees has on business leaders and HR managers, especially during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, a merger or bottom-line-related downsizing.

"It is mentally and emotionally exhausting to let one person go, let alone a large group of people," Carol Cochran, vice president of people and culture at FlexJobs, admits.

How To Make Layoffs Less Miserable

Sometimes the way you tackle staff reductions has a bearing on your own mental health. Start by guiding your company's executives in the best way to handle layoffs, so the layoffs don't come as a complete surprise or happen in heartbreakingly slow increments.

"If it's possible to have one reduction in the workforce instead of multiple rounds, that's better for everyone's mental and emotional health," Cochran says. When the remaining employees are left wondering if they'll be next -- especially if you know they will be -- the stress levels can skyrocket for all of you.

Cochran also advises having individual meetings with each employee if at all possible. "It can be time-consuming and difficult -- but in the end, it is the best approach for everyone," she says.

Dan Coffey, a managing consultant at Impact Group, concurs. "This is the first signal to employees that you respect them as individuals," he told SHRM.

If you're not in the human resources department, make sure you bring someone from the HR team into the process before and while delivering the message to offer any legal or other considerations and to provide answers you may not have.

Be Your Best Self To Ease the Blow

You may think it's better to be an automaton, removing any emotion from the layoff process, but those in the trenches disagree.

"The best way to take care of your own mental health in these difficult situations is to act with as much empathy and humanity as possible -- knowing that I connected with each person in their experience rather than sending emails or some other form of written communication," Cochran says.

It also helps if the HR department feels like an integral part of the company rather than an unwelcome appendage. Spend time weaving the department into your organization's leadership team. This will allow you to promote a company culture of honesty and communication, and ideally prevent the people at the top from being uncaring or avoiding responsibility.

Advocate for a smart strategy rather than an abrupt dismissal, and push for severance, outplacement services and the employee benefits you'd want if it were you. You'll feel better for doing so.

Be Mentally Prepared for Layoffs

Making layoffs easier on everyone requires you to be in a good place mentally. Sometimes, HR and other business leaders can feel guilty because they still have their jobs. But your professional success depends on you taking the time to nurture your own well-being.

Show by leading that it's OK to take advantage of your employee assistance benefit plan or the mental health benefits of health care plans.

Talk with some of the company's other senior executives as well as a network you've built of other leaders outside your organization who deal with the same stresses and anxieties. "Sharing experiences will help leaders feel less alone and powerless," Otte says.

What Happens If You're Next?

In the case of mergers, acquisitions or bankruptcy, you may be downsized next. "Unfortunately, I've been in this situation," Otte admits. "It's very difficult not to feel sorry for yourself, and it's very difficult not to seek sympathy from coworkers. After all, we're people, too."

But a leader still needs to perform professionally, help cushion the blow for others and manage their transition. "They deserve it. [And] by doing right by your co-workers ... you've upheld your high professional standards with dignity and you can transition yourself out knowing you did a great job," he says.

If you found this guide on how to handle laying off employees useful, you can sign up for SmartBrief on Workforce, our daily newsletter for human resources management professionals. For even more in-depth news coverage, you can sign up for any of SmartBrief’s 275+ free newsletters.

Diane Benson Harrington is a copy editor/writer for SmartBrief. As a freelancer, she has covered various industries. Connect with her on LinkedIn.