‘How Do I Let Good People Go at a Time like This?’

by Deb Boelkes

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 business leaders 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. 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.

Heartfelt leaders inspire employees, engage their emotions, and help them pinpoint and pursue their passions. My new book explains what such leadership looks like in action with real stories and lessons from top heartfelt executives; it showcases how 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.

Above all, follow the Golden Rule. If a business leader 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. Leaders in that situation should imagine how they would want to be treated if they were to lose their job, and move forward with that in mind. No one would want to hear bad news via email or a mass Zoom call, or be treated as if they didn’t matter to their supervisor and their company.

Maybe the business leader can’t be by their side, physically — but can be emotionally. In my book, I describe how I had to lay off my team when I 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. 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 leaders can and must find a way to keep that spirit of human connection and caring — even if they must deliver the bad news via video chat.

Business leaders should schedule a one-on-one meeting when there is ample time in their schedule because it’s important to offer plenty of space for the conversation. If the business leaders keep their message authentic, from the heart and honest, employees 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 in recounting the many contributions the person has made to the team and the organization. Let them know how much they are honored, respected and admired, 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. A sense of hope may be the best gift right now.

Help them brainstorm their next step. After breaking the news, business leaders should roll up their sleeves and make themselves an ally to the employees 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. Business leaders should assure the employee they will do everything in their power to help them land their dream job. Some suggestions: Call around to business or personal contacts and inquire about potential job opportunities for each staff member. 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. Business leaders should touch base with their team members through their interview process at other companies, and make themselves available to run mock interviews and check in often to see how their former employees are doing — who will appreciate having a mentor through this challenging process.

Is it unorthodox to keep in touch with employees after you let them go? 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 I share in Heartfelt Leadership, when I had to lay off my team at AT&T, each employee went off to a better, more exciting position. A few started their own businesses, and I 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. I believe business leaders have the responsibility to send an employee off into the job market hopeful and inspired, not angry or hurt. If they’ve done their job right and acted from a place of love, their employees will leave knowing that the best part of their life is still ahead.

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 more than 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.

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