How to Prepare for a Layoff and Conduct a Layoff

Presented by Lynn Holmes Howe
This is an abridgment; view the full video presentation here.
November 17, 2022

Laying off employees is the single most difficult thing leaders are asked to do. It’s never easy or painless to tell someone that he/she is no longer getting a paycheck. But you can still be empathetic, kind, and supportive.

And if you are on the other side of the desk, the one being laid off, the same sentiments apply: it’s never easy or painless. And although there are some things that are out of your control, there are some concrete suggestions that will make that transition a little more manageable. 

Jonas Cederlöf, of the University of Edinburgh, found that layoffs have negative health consequences for workers and may increase their mortality. “Job loss significantly increases expenditures for antidepressants overall,” he said. In addition to the financial aspect of losing a job, getting laid off can cause serious physical, mental, and emotional health issues, lasting long into the future, putting “a massive strain on public resources, including unemployment, healthcare, and social benefits.” Dr. Harvey Brenner of Johns Hopkins University found that for every 1% increase in the national unemployment rate, there were statistically, 37,887 more deaths, 20,240 more heart failures, 4,227 more mental hospital admissions, and 920 more suicides. 

This can be an emotional and sensitive subject, especially if you or someone in your life has been directly impacted. The following discussion serves as a reminder that there is an empathetic and caring community out there, no matter how challenging this experience might be.

How to Layoff with Empathy

How can employers, leaders, and managers better handle layoffs? Taking examples from recent news stories and personal experiences, here are six steps to help conduct layoffs with empathy and compassion.

  1. Don’t let the layoffs come as a surprise. Leadership should start offering color and context of what is happening in the company, and why layoffs might be needed.
    • Open and transparent communication with the entire company is needed even more if the news is bad, and times are uncertain. This is important, not just for the employees being laid off, but also for those who are not impacted and will have an entirely different set of emotions as well. 
    • Hiding information or providing misleading, incomplete information are all likely to break your relationship even with those employees who are allowed to stay with the company.
  2. Have a plan before you talk to the employee. It’s going to be a difficult conversation, and it’s important to be ready.
    • Prepare a script, brief outline, or talking points in advance. It’s best to get to the point quickly and deliver the bad news. This preparation will help you be as professional as possible under extremely difficult circumstances.
    • Have a list of answers to anticipated questions.
    • Provide each employee with any necessary paperwork, personalized with their information, whether in person or virtual. Don’t put the employee in a position where they have to ask for this paperwork.
  3. As a manager, go the extra mile and make time to meet with laid-off employees one-on-one.
    • Talk through the situation with them. Show that you care and acknowledge the work that they brought to the company. Ask how you can help and listen to their feedback. 
    • After delivering the news, give them a few days to think it through. Give them the option if they are comfortable in doing so, to reach out to you at any time.  
    • While you need to clearly communicate that the decision is final, you can still be available for the impacted employees to talk through things if that would be helpful.
  4. Let employees know that you are happy to provide letters of recommendation, and then make sure and write them. If you are aware of the layoffs ahead of time, you could even craft these in advance.
    • Give them proper and well-thought-through letters of recommendation.
    • Write them directly for their potential employers or LinkedIn profiles, as well as allow them to provide your contact information to potential employers for reference.
  5. Help them find another job through whatever resources you might have.
    • Provide a reference or offer to make introductions.
    • Ask your network whether they know of any openings and forward them
    • Provide them with a free resume builder, free career counseling, etc.
  6. Create a severance package. This can go a long way in easing the impact of being laid off. A generous package might include:
    • Additional weeks of salary
    • Company stock options 
    • Health insurance coverage
    • Pay for accumulated vacation or personal time off  
    • Deposits into 401k account
    • Access to internal job portals

Through the layoff process, managers should inform employees of what is happening and what resources are available, as well as give them access to recruiters, career coaches, and connections within your network of contacts.

As leaders and managers, it’s important to also consider the employees that remain, not only in terms of how they see their former colleagues treated and how the layoffs occurred (obviously, the more poorly handled, the bigger the impacts on morale) but also how they are feeling about the loss. Because it is a loss. Research has shown that remaining employees experience impacts on their physical and mental health similar to those who are actually laid off. They may have survivor guilt, and there will be some uncertainty about their future with the organization. Leaders need to share plans for the future of the company and communicate what’s happening to reassure those employees that things are on track and that they are valued and supported as employees. 

How to Prepare for a Layoff

On the flip side, are those employees being laid off or worried that they might be? How can you best prepare yourself, and what can and should you do if that happens?

The best preparation happens before you get that email or phone call. Here is a check-list to evaluate how prepared you are right now, as well as to point out any gaps: 

  • Keep your resume current – update it after a promotion or if you have recently acquired a new skill.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile current. 
  • Take time to build out your network. Join relevant job groups and professional organizations that you can tap into if needed.
  • Acknowledge recruiters who reach out with related job opportunities, regardless of whether you are interested or not. You just might need those connections in the future. 
  • Gather work samples to build a portfolio. 
  • Keep copies of your performance reviews. These can serve as reminders of work you have done as you create or update your resume.
  • Understand your benefits: healthcare, time off, flex spending, equity, and what happens to those benefits in the event of a layoff. Be on top of what exactly is included in your compensation package.
  • Make a career plan and know your next step. Have you been thinking about a pivot? Is there something you are passionate about? Maybe take a look around, if it’s feasible, to explore what would be necessary to get that next job. And if there are rumors of layoffs, consider applying for jobs. Interviews may take months, and starting this process sooner rather than later, can yield great benefits.

I’ve Just Been Laid Off; Now What?

First, take a deep breath and do something that brings you stress relief. Allow yourself time to grieve; you will have a lot of emotions. Reach out and connect with others who understand what you are going through. There will be plenty of details to address. Take care of yourself first.

Understand the exit package details (severance, health coverage, COBRA, 401K) and note important dates of when you will have to take action so you don’t lose whatever your package includes.

Make a list of what you need to update/spruce up – your resume, LinkedIn, etc. Refer to the checklist above. Reach out to your network, and ask for recommendations for your LinkedIn page.

If your former company offers free career counseling as part of the exit package, sign up. You may think you’re doing all right, but emotions and grief will come in waves. Learning how to process the impact of the layoff will be important as you move forward to seek out new employment opportunities. 

Consider signing up for any webinars, classes, or events that interest you both professionally and personally. You will have more time on your hands than you’ve been accustomed to. This will ensure that you have something to do each day.  

File for unemployment on the first day that you are eligible, which is generally the first day you are no longer on the payroll.  Be aware that this can be frustrating if you’ve never had to do it before, and can take longer than you think to get through the paperwork.

While you will want to be diligent in looking for new employment, schedule (and limit!) the time you devote to finding your next work opportunity. If you have the chance to rest and restore before you charge right into your next job, do it. Volunteer, dedicate some time to your side hustle, catch up on medical appointments, commit to your hobbies, or use your free time to take an online course to learn a new skill to level up your resume or just for personal use.

About Lynn Holmes Howe:
Lynn has a B.A. in Psychology from Rutgers and started at Bell Labs in 1983 as a Technical Writer/ Systems Engineer. She transitioned to Human Factors in 1989 and then received her M.S. in Applied Psychology – Human Factors Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology. She had a long career at AT&T: first as individual contributor, then team lead, then as manager focused on improving the wireless and entertainment buyflow & account management digital user experiences. She was laid off in October 2020 after 37 years. She then joined Glossier as Sr. Manager of UX Research in Feb 2021, focused on digital buyflow UX, and was laid off this past August after 18 months. She lives in coastal New Jersey with her husband, has two adult kids, and enjoys the beach, hiking, reading, NYC, traveling, and volunteering.


Survival Guide to Being Laid Off – Days One to Seven

Day 1:  Take a break, plan, and organize

  • Do something kind for yourself: Call a friend and grab a drink or two (or three). Get a massage. Take a hike in a beautiful place. 
  • Let yourself feel all your feelings; it’s important to process the emotions associated with this loss; taking at least a day to process them will give you the strength to take the next steps.
  • Resist the urge to send out 100 random job applications, and instead start planning and strategizing:  What type of jobs do you want, and why? Think about who you can contact in your network that could introduce you to some companies who are hiring. Think about  anyone at your old company who can give you a testimonial or letter of recommendation.

Day 2:  Get the paperwork out of the way

  • Unfortunately, there is a lot of paperwork associated with a layoff. However, it’s one of the most important items for what to do after a layoff, and it’s best to get it out of the way quickly. 
  • Get your unemployment paperwork and your health insurance paperwork filled out and squared away. Even if you’ve received a severance package with a lump sum and paid COBRA, it’s a good idea to get this figured out right away. You’ll feel better immediately without these administrative tasks hanging over your head.

Day 3:  Update your resume

  • Whether you hope to jump back into the same role as before, or if you plan to make a career change, every job search requires a resume refresh; spend today creating an updated resume that reflects the skills and experience you gleaned in your most recent role. 
  • Wherever possible, include data and numbers to show off your accomplishments. This step is never more important that after a layoff, when you are eager to prove your value to a new employer;  If you need help with accurate accomplishments and statistics related to your last job, contact your former boss or coworkers. This is also a great networking opportunity; you can end the call by telling them that you’re actively job searching since you were laid off, and you wanted to ask if they knew any hiring managers or employers who are growing their teams right now.

Day 4:  Write a cover letter

  • Take the time on Day 4 to write a fresh cover letter that highlights and expands upon the skills and experience in your resume
  • Cover letters, they are a powerful tool in any job seeker’s toolbox;  when faced with candidates who possess similar qualifications, recruiters and hiring managers often turn to cover letters to help them decide which candidate to interview.
  • For those who have recently been laid off, a cover letter is also a chance to explain why you are no longer in your most recent role, a line or two will suffice.

Day 5: Start spreading the news

  • Once you’ve had a few days to process and take care of the administrative tasks, start reaching out to your contacts and network to let them know you are looking for work.
  • Even though you may feel a sense of embarrassment about losing your job, the truth is that layoffs are a fact of life. These things happen and it doesn’t necessarily reflect what kind of employee you were.
  • People can’t help you if they don’t know you’re searching, or if they don’t know that you were just laid off. Spreading the word in your professional circles is a great way to succeed faster in your job search, and some studies indicate that up to 85 percent of all jobs are filled through networking.

Day 6:  Account for your availability

  • The next big thing to do after being laid off is to plan for how you’ll explain the fact that you’re job searching now. 
  • Take the time to decide how you plan to articulate your layoff. Write a short, simple explanation of why you lost your job (“Thanks to budget cuts, ten percent of the company was laid off. Unfortunately, I was one of them.”) and what you hope to do next.
  • Keep it brief and positive. Never badmouth or share negative details about your former employer, but do explain the situation and why the layoff occurred (restructuring, financial difficulties, etc.)

Day 7: Use your freedom wisely

  • It’s often hard to relax and enjoy yourself during a layoff. Money might be tight, or the stress of the job search could be weighing on you. However, it’s wise to do your best to enjoy this time away from the daily grind. 
  • Take advantage of this break to get back in shape, learn a new skill for fun, volunteer, dedicate some time to your side hustle, catch up on medical appointments, commit to your hobbies, or use your free time to take an online course to learn a new skill to level up your resume