Big Picture

Why Empathy Is Crucial In The Lay-Off Conversation

Telling an employee their employment is ending is a conversation everyone dreads, but leaders cannot always avoid it. And when that conversation doesn’t go well, people hear about it.

Most recently, Better.com’s CEO, Vishal Garge, laid off 900 employees during a video call. “This isn’t news you’re going to wanna hear, but ultimately it was my decision,” he said. “If you’re on this call, you are part of the unlucky group that is being laid off. Your employment here is terminated effective immediately.”

And just like that, they were unemployed.

In another instance reported earlier in 2021, BuzzFeed employees were invited to a meeting and given a password akin to “Spring is here” to enter the meeting. They were then told that their jobs were safe if they didn’t receive a termination email by 1 pm. Cue, people anxiously refreshing their emails for hours.

These are just two examples where it seems leaders have chosen to “rip the bandaid off” – seemingly without consideration to how this news will impact their employees. But when companies do layoffs poorly, they suffer the consequences. News of poor communication and unhappy employees quickly reaches the media and the public and can significantly dent a company’s reputation.

Learning how to deliver this news with more compassion is knowledge that’s vitally needed. In 2020, layoffs hit a record in the US as the pandemic overwhelmed the country, and often from the media, we hear about the insensitive ways this is accomplished.

It’s easy to understand why leaders may initially get this conversation all wrong. It’s a challenging one in the best of times; in fact, it’ll probably be one of the most unpleasant tasks you do as a senior manager. Endings are always challenging for people – hence why they don’t do a good job at it.

But leaders can and must do better to bring kindness and empathy to these conversations. Being terminated is often devastating news that will be very stressful for most employees – for many, it might lead to anxiety around bills, their family, their home, and the ability to feed their children. This needs to be taken into account when delivering the news.

Practically, there are several ways you can help ease the blow. First, ensure you engage in a standardized procedure set out by your HR department. Then, if possible, find a physical environment that is private and suitable for delivering this news, as well as finding a time that suits both of you. In this age of virtual work and meetings, doing this in person may be impossible. However, firing en masse in a “virtual room” is the very definition of callous and cold and should be strictly avoided.

But there are two crucial leadership skills that managers can use to help in delivering this news – empathy and emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EI) is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others and use this ability to manage your behavior and relationships. Ultimately, it’s about understanding the impact this news will have on someone – recognizing and truly understanding how it may or may not make them feel and using this knowledge to communicate and respond to them in a more empathetic way.

Being empathic doesn’t mean going into the conversation full of apology and sadness – nor does it mean telling them how difficult the decision has been for you, especially if this isn’t true as your inauthenticity will be obvious.

It does mean being kind and thoughtful about how the conversation takes place. Practicing the discussion beforehand and not going in without proper planning is a more compassionate way. Practice what you want to say to your employees, anticipating their reactions – as they’re likely to be different depending on their personalities. This careful preparation means you’ll perhaps come up with more sensitive comments rather than blurting out what first comes to mind. Think of it like this: how would you like the news delivered?

It is also a good idea to quickly get straight to the point by being direct and honest without the small talk. Make it clear, simple, and of course, do it on a one-to-one basis. For example, “I’ve asked you to meet today because I have some difficult news to share. Unfortunately, due to our business reorganizing, we have decided that your role here will be coming to an end.” And then acknowledge the weight of that statement – “I completely understand this is incredibly hard to hear, and I’m here to answer any questions you may have,” – or direct them to someone that will.

If you have a positive relationship with the employee, you might want to offer support – perhaps by assuring them you’ll give them a good reference or offer to help with job searching and sharing contacts. This won’t necessarily be something you do for everyone, and that’s why preparation for these conversations as individuals is essential.

Kindness is crucial in a situation like this. As a leader, remember that losing a job is one of the top 5 most stressful situations a person can go through in their life. Using empathy, understanding, warmth, and genuine concern will help you deliver the news in the best way you can.


Written by Dr. Samantha Madhosingh.

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Dr. Samantha Madhosingh
Dr. Samantha Madhosingh has authored and co-authored four books. She's appeared on CW, FOX, NBC, CBS, Emotional MoJo, Daytime and Heart&Soul. She trains entrepreneurs and leaders on how to dismantle and unlearn the stories and biases that impact their productivity, performance and progress.


Dr. Samantha Madhosingh is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.