Short of declaring failure and shutting down your company, laying off employees is the worst thing you may have to do as a startup CEO. I’ve had to lay people off on three separate occasions. It was difficult and emotional—those days were the worst of my career, and probably rank in the top 10 worst days of my life, period. This isn’t firing for cause—employees aren’t being asked to leave because of their own failings. They’re being asked to leave because the company can no longer afford to keep them. It’s not their fault.
It’s a truly awful process. Some CEOs will fall into the trap of thinking that because it’s invariably messy, it doesn’t matter how you do it. I couldn’t disagree more. Layoffs are bad, but how you handle them makes all the difference in the world. Here are a few best and worst practices for orchestrating layoffs.
1. Cut earlier and deeper than you have to. You really, really don’t want to go through this a second time. Assume you have less runway than you anticipate, and cut early. Cut more employees than you think you need to in order to reduce the risk of a second round of layoffs. Things are always worse than they look, even when the situation is bad enough to consider layoffs. Financing will take longer than expected to come through, receivables will dry up, and so on.
2. Remove poor performers. You have no choice but to remove people if their positions are being cut altogether, regardless of performance. However, you can also take this as an opportunity for some major house cleaning. Just be sure to work with someone (a lawyer) who can help you navigate the legalities—particularly if you’re dealing with employees outside the US.
3. Plan your talking points in advance of meetings. When I’m planning all-hands meetings, I tend to write bullet-point notes and talk freely instead of scripting my comments—but not for this. A round of layoffs is likely to be one of the most emotional moments of your career, and when you face your employees to deliver the news, you won’t be in your usual headspace. Don’t wing it. Plan everything you’re going to say—both to the individuals being let go and to your team as a whole—in advance. How you handle these meetings will depend on the size of your company and how many layoffs you’re doing. Regardless, you want to communicate respect for and appreciation of your employees throughout the process.
4. Follow layoffs with an all-hands meeting. Layoffs are emotional for the entire team. Follow up with an all-hands meeting to explain what happened, why you made the choices you did—preferably with metrics to back up your decisions—what’s next for the company, and whether people who weren’t laid off are at risk in the future. (Be honest!) Ideally, the people you’re laying off should be included, too. You want to honor and thank them in as public a forum as possible. For those who remain, it’s important to cultivate security and trust. However you’re communicating with your employees, you’ll need to increase your efforts, and clarity is always better. Let them in on the state of the business, financials, and expectations. You don’t want to skip over the pain that comes with layoffs, but you do need to be prepared to move forward effectively.
5. Treat employees who were laid off with dignity and honor the work they did. This will come into play when we talk about what not to do, but it’s important to remember that they’re being laid off for no fault of their own. One meaningful thing you can do is help people find their next step. Promoting the profiles of your former employees on job boards, portfolio lists, etc., offering your own connections if it’s relevant, or giving excellent referrals when you can are all great places to start. Severance is also key. Be sure to consult your board and follow your company policies, if you have them, then be as generous as you can afford to be. If you can offer a safety net or bridge, do so.
These folks will still be alumni of your company, so the way you handle them personally will impact how they talk about the organization, rate you on Glassdoor, and refer to you as a leader. Every step of the process matters—whether it’s how you broke the news, how public things were, how helpful your team was, how much you paid—and will impact your company’s brand as an employer and your own reputation as a CEO.
1. (Per above) Do not assume, because layoffs are awful and messy no matter what, that it doesn’t matter how you do it. It absolutely matters.
2. Do not treat the people you fire like criminals. Don’t hire security guards or bring boxes into the office before breaking the news. Think very carefully about what systems you need to restrict access to, when, and whether there are any loopholes. Sure, you don’t want someone to be able to download a whole list of contacts from HubSpot. But do you really want them to be cut off from their email, calendar, and personal contacts? Shouldn’t you work with them to set up an autoresponder or figure out what happens to their email?
3. Do not promise this will never happen again. You can’t predict the future. You can say “we made the best decision possible, so that hopefully we won’t have to do this again.” Offer reassurance through facts and transparency rather than empty promises.
4. Do not delegate the responsibility for deciding to lay off employees. As the CEO, this decision is yours to own. Also, do not blame someone else or the economy. Circumstances contribute, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you, and again, you’re the one making the decision.
5. Do not make mistakes about who is on which meeting invitation list or which employment list. Double check the list yourself, then have someone else check it.
I held a webinar recently with about 20 CEOs on this topic, and there were a number of questions that came up with interesting crowdsourced answers. Here are some snippets of some of them:
Q: How much severance is the right amount?
A: This is impossible to generalize—if you’re really out of cash, you may have your hands tied. If you can stick to your normal policies, you should. Companies represented on the call tended to give 1-2 weeks per year of service. Other thoughts that came up were: (a) offering a long post-termination exercise period for vested options, (b) accelerating some vesting, (c) creating a Salary Bridge program, which we did once at Return Path. The Salary Bridge program offered people an additional X weeks of continuing severance beyond the standard package if they still hadn’t found a job (but were trying and could show us they were trying) after their severance ran out. Very few people needed this, but the goodwill from offering it was huge.
Q: Have you ever considered salary cuts?
A: Yes. Usually a big layoff will come with some kind of salary cut for those who are staying, even if it’s just executives or just you as the CEO (which is more symbolic than anything else, but symbolism matters). Companies also had experience with doing salary cuts and reinstating the salaries as soon as the economic situation improved. One company talked about doing a 5% salary cut but then offering everyone a 10% bonus based on company financial milestones. In situations like this, it’s also a good idea to share metrics. How many jobs are you preserving by making cuts?
Q: Do voluntary termination programs work?
A: They might make you feel better, but be wary of doing them lest you lose key people you don’t want to lose!
Q: Can I expect additional employee attrition after a layoff?
A: Almost certainly. Any time you jolt the system, you’ll produce some unintended consequences. People will feel less stable in their role. Do your best to reassure key employees—even to the point of bringing a couple of them into the know immediately ahead of a layoff—so you don’t lose more people you don’t want to lose. Be wary of offering additional compensation or bonuses for them to stay, unless you are promoting them into expanded responsibilities (which can make sense if you’re consolidating things). Offering some people a raise “for no reason” while you’re letting other people go isn’t a great look.
Q: What about customer communications?
A: Our group was very mixed on whether or not you should do proactive external communications about a layoff. If you run a B2B organization, being a little more transparent with customers shows them you care about them—and gives you an opportunity to talk to them about any changes that might affect them, their service team, or their service levels. In a B2C organization, you’re likely either going to do something public like a short, empathetic blog post, or nothing at all. In all cases, please make sure you have a well developed internal FAQ and clear policies about who can and can’t talk externally as a company representative before doing a layoff so you’re not caught flat-footed.
Layoffs are messy and unfortunate, but you can still handle them artfully as a leader. How you handle layoffs will impact how your company recovers, it’ll impact your reputation as a CEO, and most importantly, it’ll impact the lives of the employees you laid off. I talk a lot about having a people first culture. One of the things I’ve learned about building companies with this in mind is that it’s got to be true all the way through. Even when you resort to layoffs, the people come first.
(This post also appeared on the Bolster blog.)