During my first mass layoff, my manager called it an “impact.” She gathered some of us into a room and informed us that our colleagues who weren’t present had been impacted by our tech company’s latest pivot.
The strange corporate euphemism was new to me, and I didn’t realize that people had been laid off until I looked around at my co-workers’ distraught faces.
Today, I’ve both been laid off and witnessed too many layoffs, and I’m familiar with the metaphors employers use to distance themselves from the painful business of employment termination. A few recent examples:
Realignment. “We are realigning certain functions and teams to reflect our business priorities,” said a WeWork spokesperson, describing the company’s 2020 layoffs.
Rebalancing. “This is a part of regular workforce rebalancing,” software company VMWare said in January after laying off staff.
Reduction. “We have made what we believe is the right decision to reduce our workforce by up to 900 U.S.-based roles,” Amway told its staff in a March memo.
Sandra Sucher, a professor of management at Harvard Business School who has researched layoffs, told me the use of these discomforting metaphors has a name. What these bosses are doing is a form of moral disengagement, she said, a phenomenon first identified by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura.
“One of the types of moral disengagement is euphemistic labeling. So instead of saying, ‘I am ending Sandra’s employment where she has worked for 15 years,’ ‘I am restructuring.’”
– Sandra Sucher, professor of management at Harvard Business School
Sucher described moral disengagement as “an activity we often unconsciously engage in, in order to satisfy ourselves that the harms we are doing are justified,” she said. “One of the types of moral disengagement is euphemistic labeling. So instead of saying, ‘I am ending Sandra’s employment where she has worked for 15 years,’ ‘I am restructuring.’”
Why being clear and direct is a big deal when doing layoffs.
Using direct language may seem harsh to the deliverer, but imprecise communication does not change the reality of the decision to lay people off. Gregory Tall, a workshop facilitator who coaches managers, said it’s the most common mistake he sees managers make.
“‘We are having a reduction in force, and your position has been impacted.’ OK, so what does that mean exactly?” Tall said. “They use this nebulous language that makes it feel more comfortable for the deliverer of the news, but makes it very unclear for the person receiving it.”
Setting up false expectations about a meeting that is really a layoff is cruel as well. Tall said a friend had a manager who talked for far too long about pleasantries before revealing the purpose of the meeting.
“For 15 minutes, she’s like, ‘How are your kids?’ and then she’s like, ‘So the reason I want to talk to you today…’. [My friend] felt, understandably so, like the rug had been pulled from underneath her feet,” he said.
Managers shouldn’t shy away from the fact that it can be a horrible, life-changing action they are facilitating. Sucher said that those who handle this better than others are direct with their language, such as “‘You will be personally be affected by this, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re doing to help you relocate.’ They’re acknowledging they are doing harm by talking to people in very direct ways,” she said.
It’s also best for managers to avoid centering the news on themselves, Tall said, saying things like, “This is so hard for me.”
The reality is that nothing a manager says indirectly rather than directly can change the harm of losing a job. Studies show laid-off employees face a higher chance of developing a new health condition in the year after their termination, and can earn 20% less than their peers who did not face a mass layoff, even 20 years after the layoff happened.
Setting and timing matter, too.
Beyond making language reflect the gravity of the occasion, employers need to make sure their actions support it, too. Generous severance packages, a meaningful rationale for the downsizing, and treating the victims of a layoff with dignity and respect are all actions employees scrutinize to decide if a layoff was fair.
“Most likely, the employee [being] laid off is losing a primary source of income, which will have a tangible impact on both the employee and their family. Answer any questions they may have and provide the employee with clear, concise next steps with their paperwork in order,” said people relations consultant Keni Dominguez. “Also, remember if the employee is working remotely, be respectful of their privacy, and make sure they are alone when they receive the information.”
Unfortunately, layoffs can also precede workplace violence. Matthew Doherty, a Jensen Hughes security consultant who advises companies on workplace threats, said a layoff can be someone’s “point of lowest self-esteem, and it can have tragic consequences if it’s not handled delicately with a great deal of sensitivity.”
During the pandemic, layoffs may happen through a computer screen. Doherty recommended these be conducted with appropriate dress and virtual background to reflect to solemnity of the occasion. “We have had cases where it just wasn’t taken seriously. Swimming pool, the kids in the background, you’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt, not respecting the gravity of the situation,” he said.
The stakes for getting a layoff right are high. How laid-off people are treated not only has devastating consequences for them, but it also sends a message to those that remain.
After layoffs, morale tanks and turnover increases. As Charlie Trevor, a professor of management and human resources at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, previously told HuffPost, how layoffs are handled can tell “a survivor a great deal about the company’s priorities and about the type of treatment one might expect moving forward.”
His research found that post-layoff practices, such as setting up a grievance or appeals process, mitigated the likelihood of surviving staff members quitting.
Layoffs are often an abrupt shock for workers. But they shouldn’t be.
Most companies don’t expect to play a major role in helping to create a next chapter for the people whose jobs they cut. These companies feel the safest route is to keep impending layoffs a secret because they’re afraid of staff backlash, Sucher said. But “the reason they don’t trust in the employees is because they’re offering them nothing in exchange for releasing them,” she said.
Abrupt notification is the norm in many companies, but Sucher said it shouldn’t be. “The best practice in this area would almost never look like today is the first day you heard what’s going to happen to you and it’s also your last day at the company,” she said.
“If you are serious about treating this as a harm you are imposing on other human beings, then you have to plan for it in the same you would plan for the acquisition of people whose talent you want.”
– Sandra Sucher
There are alternatives to the traditional horrible way of doing layoffs. Take Nokia’s Bridge program, which Sucher wrote about for Harvard Business Review. In 2008, Nokia experienced backlash after laying off staff at a German plant following a year of great profit. There were union boycotts, bad press and reputation loss that resulted in an estimated $147 million loss in profit there.
In 2011, when Nokia again wanted to cut staff, it gave employees in countries where there would be layoffs a lead-up time of two years to choose from five options:
1. Find another job at Nokia.
2. Use career coaching, résumé workshops, career fairs and networking events hosted by special Nokia centers to find another job outside Nokia.
3. Win a business grant worth up to approximately $34,750 to start their own business and receiving coaching and networking introductions from Nokia throughout the process.
4. Use Nokia training grants for business management and trade school courses to learn something new.
5. Get financial support for personal goals such as volunteering.
As a result of the Bridge program, 60% of the 18,000 affected workers knew their next steps the day their jobs at Nokia ended, and the majority of layoff candidates and remaining employees improved business quality levels during the transition time.
“If you are serious about treating this as a harm you are imposing on other human beings, then you have to plan for it in the same you would plan for the acquisition of people whose talent you want,” Sucher said.