By Deb Boelkes
Right now, with anxiety at an all-time high, how you do the dreaded deed really matters. Deb Boelkes says heartfelt leaders approach layoffs the same way they lead—with compassion, candor, and reassurance about the future.
No leader wants to let an employee go. Unfortunately, in these harsh and uncertain economic times, more and more of us find ourselves having to deliver some very bad news. Without question, it's one of the most painful parts of being a leader. But Deb Boelkes says you can let people go without abandoning them emotionally—and as the pandemic sets in for who knows how long, it's a skill every leader needs to learn.
"Actually, how you lay someone off should be an extension of how you lead," says Boelkes, author of Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring. "Great leaders do both with compassion, integrity, and candor. They lead with an open heart and the assurance that employees do have what it takes to excel—and they let people go the same way."
Boelkes says heartfelt leaders inspire employees, engage their emotions, and help them pinpoint and pursue their passions. In her new book, she explains what such leadership looks like in action. Full of real stories and lessons from top heartfelt executives, it teaches you to transform from a person people follow because they have to, to a person they want to follow. And it doesn't shy away from talking about what it looks like to fire someone the heartfelt way.
Boelkes offers the following tips:
Above all, follow the Golden Rule. If you must lay somebody off, the best approach to take is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule is a guiding principle that leaders should live by every day, but never is it more important than when employees are at their most vulnerable. Imagine how you would want to be treated if you were to lose your job and move forward with that in mind. You would not want to hear bad news via email or a mass Zoom call, or be treated as if you didn't matter to your supervisor and your company.
Maybe you can't be by their side, physically—but you can be emotionally. In her book, Boelkes describes how she had to lay off her team when she worked for AT&T. "When my first team member came into my office, I motioned for him to sit on the sofa instead of in one of the chairs on the opposite side of my desk," she recalls. "I immediately came out from behind my desk and sat right next to my team member, turning toward him. I was right there next to this employee as I laid out the details of what was going to happen."
Obviously, this physical closeness likely can't happen now due to social distancing. But Boelkes says leaders can and must find a way to keep that spirit of human connection and caring—even if you must deliver the bad news via video chat.
"Schedule a one-on-one meeting when you have a lot of time, because you will want to offer plenty of space for the conversation," she says. "If you keep your message authentic, from the heart, and honest, they are most likely to receive it well."
Spell out their unique strengths—and reassure them that they'll be able to leverage those strengths again. This is a time, in particular, when people need to be reminded of the gifts they bring to the table. Be specific as you recount the many contributions the person has made to the team and the organization. Share how much you honor, respect, and admire them and remind them that other organizations will recognize and value their skills and abilities as well.
"Reassure the person that these terrible times won't last forever," says Boelkes. "A sense of hope may be the best gift you can give them right now."
Help them brainstorm their next step. After you have broken the news, roll up your sleeves and make yourself an ally to your employee as they begin envisioning their future. Discuss with them what they would really love to be doing going forward. Brainstorm about the type of jobs they would love to have. Review the kind of companies in the local region or elsewhere that might have good opportunities for them to do the things they really want to do.
To get the ball rolling, ask, "What is important to you in life, and what makes you excited about your career?" Listen closely to each response.
Wholeheartedly commit to helping them find their next role. Assure the employee that you will do everything in your power to help them land their dream job. Call around to any contacts you have and inquire about potential job opportunities for each member of your staff. Give referrals freely. Help them come up with stretch assignments that will give them more experience and prepare them for potential opportunities they are interested in pursuing.
Later, when things open back up, coach them through the interview process. Touch base with the team member through their interview process at other companies. Make yourself available to run mock interviews and check in often to see how they are doing. They will appreciate having a mentor through this challenging process.
"Is it unorthodox to keep in touch with employees after you let them go?" says Boelkes. "Perhaps. But if you truly care about someone, you will want to. And who knows? You may be able to bring the person back at a later date."
As Boelkes shares in Heartfelt Leadership, when she had to lay off her team at AT&T, each employee went off to better, more exciting positions. A few started their own businesses, and she was even able to bring back others as contractors. The point? Just because you're letting someone go doesn't mean their life is over.
"There's no escaping the discomfort and pain caused by layoffs, but these steps keep the suffering to a minimum," concludes Boelkes. "You have the responsibility to send an employee off into the job market hopeful and inspired, not angry or hurt. If you've done your job right and acted from a place of love, they'll leave knowing that the best part of their life is still ahead."
About the Author: Deb Boelkes is the author of The WOW Factor Workplace: How to Create a Best Place to Work Culture and Heartfelt Leadership: How to Capture the Top Spot and Keep on Soaring. She is not just a role model heartfelt leader; she's the ultimate authority on creating best places to work, with 25+ years in Fortune 150 high-tech firms, leading superstar business development and professional services teams. As an entrepreneur, she has accelerated advancement for women to senior leadership. Deb has delighted and inspired over 1,000 audiences across North America.