5 Dos and 5 Donts of Laying off Employees with Compassion and Grace

Layoffs are one of the most painful responsibilities that organizations must manage. Regardless of how well you operate your company, sometimes layoffs are unavoidable.

The turmoil caused by COVID-19 has resulted in a downturn in many industries. This has meant that layoffs have become a necessary reality in many companies today. 

If you are part of a management team that is overseeing layoffs, you know that layoffs take an emotional toll, both on employees impacted and on you as a leader. 

Although you may no longer have a business relationship with the employees being laid off, remember that the world is a very small place, and the reputation of you and your company can be affected for a long time based on how you treat employees as they walk out the front door. Remember to communicate with kindness and empathy. 

Here are 5 dos and 5 don’ts to keep in mind if you are faced with having to layoff employees:

  1.   DO: Tell them in person, face to face
  2.   DO: Get straight to the point
  3.   DO: Show kindness and empathy for the employee
  4.   DO: Offer the employee guidance during the transition
  5.   DO: Complete the laying off process amicably
  1.   DON’T: Lay the blame on others for the decision
  2.   DON’T: Allow the layoff to sound up as if it is for discussion
  3.   DON’T: Provide the employee any promises you cannot keep
  4.   DON’T: Pressure the employee to sign anything they’re not ready to sign
  5.   DON’T: Lay off employees the week before a holiday break if avoidable

 5 DOS:

DO: Tell them in person – it’s best if you are face-to-face with the employee being laid off. 

Digital communications are important today, but when telling an employee he or she is being laid off, face-to-face communication is best. Find a private place to deliver the message in person. Do not use texts, emails, social media, or any other method of digital communication to deliver the message. An HR representative should often be included in these discussions as well. 

DO: Get straight to the point.

Some employees may have seen the writing on the wall and know what this conversation will be about, while others will not have a clue. Within thirty seconds of starting the meeting, the employee should be told they are being let go.

Here’s an example of how the conversation might go:

“With sales down, we have to make some very tough staffing decisions. It is with deep regret that I must tell you that the company has decided to eliminate your role at this time.”

Simple and direct, with no chance for a misunderstanding. Although the experience is painful, it is best to get it over with quickly. Dragging the conversation out will only make it more painful for all involved.

DO: Show kindness and empathy for the laid-off employee.

When employees get laid off, they react in many different ways. Some may reach acceptance immediately, while others might cry. Some may get angry.

Immediately after providing them with the news of the layoff, your job is to show empathy. If they want to air grievances, let them. If they want to rant and rave for a few minutes, let them (so long as they don’t become physical or disruptive to the entire workplace). If they want to cry, make sure to have tissues readily available.

Remember this: it is not just the employee being affected by this layoff; their families will also feel the ramifications of this. And someday, it may be you in their position with the roles reversed. Treat them just as you would like to be treated.

DO: Offer employee guidance during the transition.

Don’t just tell the employee they are fired and show them the door. Make sure the employee understands all of the options available from the company in terms of outplacement. If appropriate, agree to provide good references to solid employees who are let go. If you have a close relationship with the employee, offer to make some phone calls and outreach on their behalf and remember to check in with them periodically. They have left the company, not your community of friends and neighbors.

DO: Complete the laying off process amicably.

It is understood that, for security reasons, laid-off people often need to exit the building immediately upon termination. You should look for a way to provide dignity to departing personnel. Try to find time to conduct layoffs when fewer people will be around. If there is a need for employees to be escorted out, either you or someone from human resources should do that rather than security personnel. If having the employee pack up personal items proves to be too much for them, offer to ship the items to their home.


DON’T: Lay the blame on others for the decision.

Many times, you have had to choose which people in your division, department, or team had to be laid off. Other times, it is simply your job to be the delivery person for bad news, and you are just relaying information from the top down.

If you are just the delivery person, do not go into a long spiel about how you had nothing to do with the decision. Avoid phrases like, “My boss told me to …” or “If it were my decision I’d keep you, but …” Remember that you get to keep your job, so don’t play the victim.

DON’T: Allow the layoff to sound as if it is up for discussion.

The decision has been made to lay off this employee, and they need to begin the process of finding a new place to work. While you need to show kindness and compassion for the person being let go, you also must make it clear that the decision is 100 percent final. Only after you have made that abundantly clear can you move forward with discussing issues such as severance, benefits, and so on.

Also, if severance and health benefits are non-negotiable, make sure that is crystal clear to the departing employee.

DON’T: Provide the employee with any promises you cannot keep.

It is normal that you would want to assist someone impacted by a layoff, but be careful not to lead them on. Do not offer them things like a fantastic reference if you don’t feel comfortable with that. Avoid promising a job back at the company if conditions improve, as you may not have the ability to follow through on that promise. You may not even be employed with the company if/when that time comes. 

DON’T: Pressure the employee to sign anything they’re not ready to sign.

When you finish the conversation, you will likely present to the departing employee with a separation agreement, their written termination from the company. Although you might want the employee to sign it immediately to move the process along more quickly, make sure you communicate that the employee has the right to discuss this agreement with their family, accountants, and lawyers.

Give them a reasonable time frame to look over the agreement and talk it over with relevant parties before requesting the forms back.

DON’T: Lay off employees the week before a holiday break if avoidable.

Some companies want to start the new year fresh and make staff reductions right before the year-end holiday season. Others want to use a holiday break to distance themselves and their employees who remain from the unpleasantness of having to let people go. This may seem logical, but when viewed from the eyes of the laid-off employee, the public in general, or even the employees not laid off, this is seen as cruel and harsh treatment. Remember that ending the relationship on good terms is in both your personal and the company’s best interest, it will maintain a positive image in the community as well as within the office.

Finally, it is good to remember that, a thank you and a firm handshake go a long way as the departing employee walks out the door one last time.

Following these five dos and don’ts won’t eliminate the pain and distress of the layoff process. But they will allow you, the company, and the departing worker to move on with no — or at least less — hard feelings.

Remember that communication with employees is the most impactful way to show them that they are appreciated. When you communicate effectively in every stage of the employee life cycle, your business will start to build what we call WorkTrust. This will help your company perform better so that you can avoid future layoffs and build a strong culture of retention.

To learn more about how to effectively communicate with your non-desk employees check out redeapp.com