For HR professionals, it would be fair to say that there’s probably nothing we find more challenging than having to let people go. 

This is especially true lately with the QuitTok trend of viral firing and layoff videos breaking the internet. 

Today’s tumultuous business climate is forcing many companies to tighten their belts. And unfortunately, with tightened belts come hard cuts, and that includes layoffs. 

Job and financial security are on shaky ground for many people, and anxiety is starting to creep in for everyone, from individual contributors to C-suite executives and board members. 

But for HR professionals tasked with determining who stays and who goes—and who have to carry the heavy burden of delivering the news to people—the topic of letting people go is bound to bring up some uncomfortable feelings.

While letting people go is never easy, there is an etiquette. Infusing etiquette into the layoff strategy you implement at your organization and letting it guide you can help ease the technical complexities and emotional weight. 

The gist of it? No matter why you’re saying goodbye to a team member, the goal is to always let them go with dignity and champion an exceptional employee journey that goes from recruitment to offboarding.

This article takes an honest look at what happens when organizations make cuts, how to let team members go with dignity, and how to safeguard your own mental health as an HR professional during and after the layoff process.

Facing the hard decisions

The hiring boom of the COVID pandemic years gave way to a sudden slowdown, including loss of funding, rising operating costs, shrinking business opportunities, canceled contracts, and bank collapses. 

It was the perfect storm, and it left many businesses around the world unable to secure the capital they needed to operate at their current capacity. With plummeting revenues, businesses had no choice but to cut costs and lay people to stay afloat.

Unfortunately, the latter lies at the feet of HR. 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for how to let someone go, but there are several different ways to approach it, and every good strategy starts with a plan. 

<<Download, print, and use these exit interview templates for a proper farewell.>>

Make a plan that still puts people first

Once you’ve made the hard decision, it’s important to make a plan. And it’s equally important for that plan to prioritize people, whether they’re on “The List” or not. 

How you treat your people is a hallmark of your company culture, and it’s not something you leave at the door. Don’t forget: These people are a part of your team and deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and humility. 

HR professionals often have the responsibility of building the layoff strategy. Despite this painful reality, consider using these four tenets as your guideposts for keeping people first:

  1. Preserve as many positions as possible. Despite needing to make cuts, it’s important to save as many people’s jobs as possible. This not only demonstrates your commitment to your people but keeps the institutional knowledge you still need (and will need in the future) in-house.
  1. Help people network. Connect your departing people to others who can help them expand their professional networks and increase their chances of landing a new position as soon as possible.
  1. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Research as much as possible to fully understand the situation. This will allow you to explore every avenue and determine the best approach.

Be ready to pivot. Things can change quickly. In today’s business climate, being flexible and ready for change is crucial.  Until the first layoff meeting actually happens, it’s best to continue with business as usual. This approach can also help bolster your own mental health.

Be transparent and cautious as a company

One of the worst experiences that people can go through professionally is when a layoff seemingly comes out of the blue. As HR and business leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen. 

In order to accomplish this, transparency is key. 

Be transparent with your people about the state of the business and how certain changes the business makes to adjust to the market may affect individuals across the workforce. Discuss this at all-hands meetings and encourage managers to discuss it in team and one-on-one meetings

If the company has no choice but to carry out layoffs, stay transparent throughout that process, too. 

Provide managers with notes to help them explain the company’s decision to their teams. Include how the company will continue to support affected team members, whether that’s through severance packages and networking opportunities or training and education and strong references.

Go all-in on supporting your leaders

While transparency is essential, there are times when caution is the best avenue. Sometimes, it’s best to limit who knows the full story to protect people’s wellbeing

For example, if you’re connected to the people directly impacted, layoffs can be a heavy burden. Knowing about future layoffs within the company can also be difficult, especially for managers.  

To lighten the cognitive load, consider only telling managers the names of those impacted within their specific departments. That way, they can focus on the people they work with every day, rather than having to bear the knowledge of everyone impacted. 

You can also encourage leaders to utilize company resources, like Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and health concierge services (if you have them). Finally, you can consider organizing more support meetings with the HR and people professionals team to check in on their wellbeing.

Treat people with dignity and respect

Even though letting people go can be a tough decision, it can be done with dignity. 

To ensure you’re still doing as much as you can for your people, make sure you’re:

  • Upfront and honest. If you can provide a generous severance package but not cover benefits, let them know.
  • Tactful. Avoid announcing the names of people who’ve been laid off. People will know and talk to each other about it outside of work.
  • Empathetic. Layoffs can significantly impact people’s confidence. Make it clear that everyone knows that there was nothing wrong with their performance. It wasn’t them who was cut, it was their position.
  • Respectful. Deliver the news in individual conversations and make sure not to mention anyone else’s name. Customize the conversation for each person.
  • Personable. Focus this meeting on the person, not the company. Provide a safe space and open forum. Allow them to express any emotions they have, including anger and frustration.

It’s also important to understand the gravity of the situation for the people you’re letting go. That means not rushing layoffs and giving people the time they deserve to process the company’s decision and its impact.

These conversations are hard. Notifying someone doesn’t take much time, but schedule at least 30 minutes per meeting to give yourself and the people you’re speaking to time to process. This time can also help you find ways to move forward together.

The job doesn’t end immediately after you’ve delivered the news. Aftercare is just as important. 

Often, it’s the smaller things that make a difference at this stage, such as asking people how they would like their personal belongings delivered to them if they can’t return to their desks for security reasons. 

Give them the option to have items sent via mail or delivered personally. 

You can also ask people if they’d like you to ask someone to meet them outside to say goodbye instead of having them text from the parking lot.

If possible, work with your EAP to provide an on-site counselor for anyone who needs it. While people don’t typically take advantage of the service, they’ll most likely really appreciate that it’s there for them.

As for your remaining team members, make it clear in a follow-up meeting that the company has notified everyone impacted by the layoffs—this will allay any fears people might have of being next.

Follow through on the promises you make

Once the more emotional part of letting someone go is over, it’s important to ensure that you keep any promises you make to your people. 

For example, if you said you’d network them with others in the industry, make sure to make those introductions. You can also review resumes, connect people with recruiters, write letters of recommendation, and even send jobs that fit people’s specific skill sets. 

If someone you’ve let go needs employment verification for an interview process, prioritize responding. They’ll likely be concentrating on—and perhaps stressed about—finding their next job. 

Taking these steps is not only the right thing to do but also reinforces the fact that you’re a company that genuinely cares about its people—both past and present. This helps improve your reputation as a company and opens up the possibility of valued ex-team members returning to you later down the line when circumstances allow. 

<<Download, print, and use these exit interview templates for a proper farewell.>>

Take care of your own mental health

The first few weeks after layoffs are the hardest and most emotional. 

This is a critical time, especially for your remaining team members, who may feel betrayed by the layoffs while grateful they still have jobs. But layoffs can be especially hard on the HR professionals tasked with planning the cuts and delivering the news to people they know and care about.

That’s why it’s absolutely imperative to prioritize your own mental health. 

Remember that you’re part of the company, too! Lean on the resources you provide to your team. Contact your EAP and take advantage of the counseling services available.

But most importantly, remind and reassure yourself that you’ve treated everyone with the utmost respect and dignity throughout the process. Layoffs are never easy, but they’re also an unavoidable part of the professional world—so be kind to yourself, and rest easy knowing you treated everyone with the same respect you’d want for yourself. 

Navigating layoffs with integrity and compassion

For HR professionals, managing layoffs is an unfortunate necessity and an emotional challenge. 

But by treating people with respect, compassion, and dignity, you can navigate the complexity of layoffs with grace. Conducting layoffs with compassion and dignity gives the people who have worked hard for your company the send-off they deserve. 

In doing so, you can support your team and reinforce the strength and resilience of your organization as a whole.

Tali Sachs

From Tali Sachs

Tali is a content marketing manager at HiBob. She's been writing stories since before she knew what to do with a pen and paper. When she's not writing, she's reading sci-fi, snuggling with her cats, or singing at an open mic.