Tech & Work

Five tips for conducting more humane layoffs

If you have to do a layoff, HR may tell you to get it over with quickly. But Margaret Heffernan has a different suggestion: Ignore HR tactics and go with your better instincts.

The first time I had to do a layoff, I followed all the advice I got from HR. It was quick, efficient, and brutal. Employees got their notices and left while the rest of the workforce was left traumatized and guilty. But this, I'd been told, was the "right" way because it minimized risk of violence and subversion.

I never did it that way again.

I've had many conversations with CEOs and they've all had the same experience. The whole process of a layoff is so gruesome that no decent human being can feel anything but anxiety and loathing. Because we don't really want to do it, we put our faith in professionals, only to discover that our first instincts about how to go about it were right.

I understand the HR point of view; it is all about reducing liability. But subsequent layoffs have followed different rules.

Note: These tips are based on an entry in BNET's Serial CEO blog.

1: Plan ahead

If you have to do a layoff fast, you haven't been doing your job. You should see danger signs early, in the numbers, in cash flow, in the time it takes to close deals.

2: Discuss the problem

Once you see those warning signs, work with your team to establish some milestones that will indicate whether trends are improving or getting worse. Decide by which of these you will need to start considering cost-reductions.

3: Think strategically

If you have to reduce costs, it doesn't automatically mean cutting jobs. You might be able to partner with competitors or vendors. You could renegotiate key cost-drivers, move premises, or delay new projects. In my book, cutting people is the last option, not the first one.

4: Share information

Once you've established milestones that track short-term performance, share this with everyone in the business. Let them know that if they hit targets, cost-cutting may be averted but if they don't, it won't. At this stage, it is perfectly feasible that some individuals may decide they want to leave . That's fine. What you've done is shown your employees respect by giving them choices.

5: Keep in touch

If you don't hit your milestones and do have to cut jobs, keep in touch with your former employees -- you may want them back one day.

A better way

Being humane in the way you do layoffs has all kinds of benefits. Those still working for you feel better about themselves, the company, and you. Their enthusiasm can remain intact because their loyalties aren't divided. And it isn't trivial that you can go to work feeling like a human being instead of a monster.

Additional reading


Last time I got laid off it was the no notice, brutal, here's an off site luncheon and here are your pink slips. While there had been some unofficial rumors a few weeks earlier, many of us were told that we had nothing to worry about, we were safe. Obviously that company lied to us. Any company that does that, even if they present a semi-decent severance package, doesn't deserve any loyalty. And it can be argued that any non-disclosure agreements are null and void. After all, whatever you know has no value to that company anymore, otherwise they wouldn't have fired you.


I've been at employers where they let it be known that if anyone wanted to discuss a package it would be available. That gives some employees control over the situation. I've seen "good" and "bad" layoffs. I've been laid off, and I have laid staff off. It can be done in an organized fashion and done in a way that attempts to minimize the trauma involved in the event. At one place, my supervisor escorted me to my office, and even carried boxes to my car, instead of asking security to do it. We still keep in touch ten years later.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

: marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals Thus I beg to differ with your assertion that there is no such thing as a humane layoff. Having been laid off before I can most certainly affirm that there is a humane and an inhumane way to go about it...


There is no such thing as a humane layoff. That is like saying a chicken is humanely killed (no such thing.)


Back in '96 I worked for a company that spent 6 months doing a transition to another state. My whole department was kept in the loop every step of the way. Offered re-locations, when those were not wanted, offered reasonable severance packages, job placement help, the works. The next time I got laid off was the abrupt way the article described. Guess which one I liked better?!

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Your tips harken back to an era when layoff really did mean temporary cash flow problem. Thanks for the nostalgia! Now if we could just inject "humane" into "human resources".

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