Leading Your Team Through a Layoff

The boss pops his head over the still-yet-to-be-decorated cubicle of the new guy. Me. "Team meeting."

Never a good sign. And definitely not from someone who fires up his laptop at 8am sharp; schedules his calendar months in advance; and shares the agenda a week before the meeting. Not good. Not good at all.

The meeting was a short one. Some eagle-eyed middle manager soaring far above in the corporate hierarchy had spotted a line on a spreadsheet and pounced. Our team’s work would be outsourced, at least for now, and maybe cut entirely. Like most layoffs in R&D the decision had very little to do with the quality of our work (fine, thank you) or the collective investment of team members with careers to grow, bills to pay, and families to feed. It wasn’t the boss’s idea. His boss’s, either. We simply missed the cut and that was that.

Two decades, a good many startups, and a few turns of the layoff wheel later, I’ve learned that:

  1. Bad layoffs happen to good people.
  2. Empathy, care, and communication go a long way.
  3. It’s still no fun. Ever.

I hope you never need this post. If you do find yourself in the unenviable position of orchestrating (or simply managing a team through) a layoff, I hope it will help you approach the proceedings with all the pragmatism and grace you can muster.

For us, the living

It’s been a rough year in tech. Borrowing costs have increased, companies underpinned by high growth multiples and cheap capital have done exactly what you’d expect them to do, and the consequences for headcount have been dire. Once inflation tapers off and recession fears ease the moment will pass–but if there’s light at the end of the tunnel, we haven’t reached it just yet.

For employees caught up in downsizing, rightsizing, and other “efficiency” measures, the path forward is fairly well-defined. Take a minute, dust yourself off, and start the search for a new job.

Things are less clear for the employees left behind. Some team members may not have experienced layoffs before, and even seasoned veterans may be shocked, angry, calloused, or all three. One thing they won’t be is certain of what lies ahead.

Goals following a layoff

Every layoff comes with trauma, uncertainty, and broken trust, and since productivity won’t return until things are settled, recovering from these is priority number one. Leaders know this. When preparing a layoff, both senior leadership and their HR teams typically approach the moment with four goals in mind:

  • Doing right by departing team members
  • Retaining everyone else
  • Minimizing disruptions to operations
  • Shortening the recovery period as much as possible

Most team members won’t see the flurry of behind-the-scenes activity that goes into achieving these goals, and no matter how much care goes into severance packages the results are never enough.

Navigating a layoff requires more than the HR team alone.

As an R&D Manager

Like most things in management, leading through a layoff requires coming to terms with it yourself. And like most things in management, it’s easier said than done. Technology can be a frothy sector–particularly for early- and growth-stage startups–but a decade of relatively free money and a phenomenally competitive job market mean that any given layoff may be the first that team members have seen.

Even if it’s not your first rodeo, the plot’s a little different than any you’ve seen before.

  • If you knew layoffs were coming, you’ve likely only had a few hours (or days, at the most) to prepare yourself and chart a thoughtful course for the team.

  • You may also be reacting in real time, with no more insight than the team into who’s impacted; the rationale behind the layoffs; the future prospects of the business; or what happens next.

  • You may even be impacted yourself.

Whatever the scenario, your team will be looking to you to make the best of a bad situation and help guide them through the uncertain times ahead. What new realities will team members be adapting to? Should they start looking for jobs themselves?

You’ll get several chances to answer these questions, both with the full team and in subsequent 1:1 conversations.

Discussing layoffs with your team

When an event impacts everyone, it’s important to establish baseline understanding and establish social support for what lies ahead. A team conversation is the best way to do this, and it’s important to gather everyone up as soon as possible. This is especially true when the layoffs are a surprise: even though you won’t have all the answers, opening a line of communication and starting to frame the path forward will buy some trust for whatever comes after.

  • Be direct, clear, and transparent. Share what you can about who is impacted and next steps, being honest about what you can’t discuss due to confidentiality or a lack of information.

  • Acknowledge the trauma. Glossing over the pain of layoffs won’t make it go away–but it will cost trust. Addressing the pain directly will normalize how team members are likely feeling anyway, as well as opening lines of communication in subsequent 1:1s

  • Avoid speculation. In talking with your team, stick to the facts, and demure where you don’t have the answers. “I don’t know” beats a misset expectation. “…And we’ll find out,” is even better. Especially with prompt, conclusive follow-up.

  • Set the tone for the future. Share any changes in roles or expectations. If appropriate, use the opportunity to assure remaining team members that you’re still focused on the mission and invested in them personally going forward.

  • Invite further conversations. As emotions give way to questions, make it clear you’re available to listen, whether in the full-team setting or individually later

As awkward as this meeting will be, it’s also an opportunity. The shock immediately following a layoff is more than raw emotion and (understandably) low trust–it’s also a period of remarkable candor. The feedback and concerns you hear from the team will be as direct as they ever get, and addressing and resolving them promptly will buy goodwill for the challenges ahead.

Discussing layoffs with individual team members

While the large-group setting is an important first step, 1:1s after the layoffs give room for more nuanced conversation. Assuming you’ve nurtured a psychologically safe environment (and you have, haven’t you?), expect lots of questions. Team members may be very direct with what’s on their minds–invariably leading back to the impact for them personally. Expect to discuss:

  • is my job secure?
  • why (how) were affected employees selected?
  • how do we cover for (x important function that no longer has an owner)?

Building trust and confidence in the answers depends on having them ready before jumping into emotionally-charged conversations–though if answers aren’t yet available, “I’ll get back to you” and a timeline for an update will always beat guessing and getting it wrong.

Like every 1:1, the conversations following a layoff should be employee-led. Listen first. Giving employees space to process the news before jumping into next steps may turn up concerns that you haven’t anticipated (but still need to address). Validate concerns as they come up, address the ones you can, and be clear on what you do and don’t know yourself. When the conversation does turn to next steps, build on the general guidance shared with the team around changing roles and expectations with details relevant to the specific team member. If priorities are changing, reinforce those, too–and to the extent that it’s possible, be prepared to explain why.

If you can. Individual conversations allow more nuance than is possible in an all-hands setting; still, questions touching on personnel matters or future plans won’t have satisfying answers immediately, if ever. In the wake of a layoff, that’s unfortunately how it goes.

Bad layoffs happen to good people

For my team, the next steps were unpleasant straightforward. We would stick around for two weeks, train our replacements, and be out. Access revoked. Badges surrendered. Done-zo. But I’ll never forget how the boss approached it:

“I’m sure everyone’s feeling frustrated and angry. I know it would be easy to check out, or even try to sabotage this whole thing, but we’re not going to do that. We’re going to approach the transition like we always do, with all the integrity we can muster, and we’re going to walk out of here with our heads held high.”

Which we did.

And the leaders of our sister-teams; our customers; and our department did, too, providing the ballast and compassion to guide everyone back to productivity beyond.