June 11, 2020

Layoffs may have to happen, but they don’t have to be soul-crushing. Instead of haggling over severance, immediately cutting off email and quickly ending health insurance benefits, some organizations — including newsrooms — are finding more compassionate and empathetic ways to part ways with workers.

Should you find yourself in the difficult position of having to deliver the news to dear teammates, here’s some advice for handling the difficult situation with care.

Be generous with severance benefits

A generous package can help workers transition, particularly during a period of high unemployment and economic uncertainty.

The Atlantic is giving all laid-off employees 16 weeks of severance pay, far more generous than the one or two weeks that many media outlets provide departing employees.

Outside of media, Carta — a company that helps companies manage valuations, investments and equity plans — gave employees three months of severance, with CEO Henry Ward acknowledging, “There is a difference between looking for a job in a normal economic environment and this one.”

Airbnb gave employees 12 weeks of severance. Airbnb also is providing one year of health insurance to departing employees in the U.S., reassigning its recruiters to help them find jobs, allowing people to keep their laptops and accelerating vesting schedules so everyone walks away with shares.

Media companies haven’t been quite as generous, though. The Atlantic is covering COBRA payments through the end of the year. Quartz said it would cover “several months” of health care but tie payments to seniority.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Here are the newsroom layoffs, furloughs and closures caused by the coronavirus

Help your former colleagues find new jobs

When SmarterTravel general manager Sarah Hodkinson was shutting down the site last month, she created an alumni directory and shared it publicly on LinkedIn. The directory includes links to profiles, detail on specialties and contact information.

“We get jobs because of our networks, and to do something like that is the most people-focused way to manage a big or even a small reduction in force,” said Stephanie Fogle, a New York-based human resources consultant who has worked in media.

Writing LinkedIn recommendations, tweeting about talented people and the new opportunities they’re seeking, making introductions and recommending laid-off employees for open positions at other organizations also can help people navigating a job loss and looking to start a new chapter.

Help people through the process

The actual process of being laid off is often quick, and the people being laid off tend to experience some shock, making it hard to comprehend anything beyond the fact that they no longer have a job.

“It takes time to process these things and people process at different rates. Give folks space to ask you questions and deal in their own way,” said P. Kim Bui, the Arizona Republic’s director of innovation.

Between the complexities of unemployment, health insurance and severance agreements, people usually have lots of questions after they’ve digested the news.

“That’s part of being compassionate, making sure there’s a capacity to have that conversation after the initial blow of ‘your position has been eliminated’ has passed,” Fogle said.

Some employers treat layoffs like Band-Aids, ushering employees out the door as they’re telling them they’re losing their job. There are better ways.

“Giving people a way to achieve closure is really important. That might be a goodbye email or a farewell happy hour,” said Mandy Jenkins, general manager of McClatchy’s Compass Experiment. “It is for the best that isn’t formally endorsed by the company, but there should be some leeway for the closure to happen if possible.”

At Quartz, departing employees were able to keep access to email, Slack and video conferencing until the end of the next business day. Quartz also created a Slack channel specifically for goodbyes and a separate Slack team for Quartz alumni.

MORE FROM POYNTER: One year ago, the staff of the Times-Picayune got laid off. Here’s where they are now.

Choose your words intentionally

Companies tend to tell employees they’re being terminated or eliminated, words that can evoke strong negative emotions and focus on the severing of the professional relationship. “If we could stop using that word” or only internally with HR, that would “probably be a good thing,” Fogle said.

Carta transitions employees with a “Next Chapter Program,” which feels much more like a forward step toward something new.

Some employees may wonder why they were selected for layoffs. Jenkins recommends not answering that question.

“As a manager, you can’t compare one person’s situation to that of a fellow employee,” she said. “Even if there are reasons that person was selected over another, they don’t need to know that.”

Bui recommends managers be as honest as possible and acknowledge where there may be frustrations. “When you can’t say something you explain why,” she said. “Maybe it’s because you literally don’t know. Or it is still being figured out.”

The layoff conversation isn’t a performance review or time to air grievances. It’s a time to thank employees for their contribution and support their path forward.

“Build people up, give them the tools to get back out in the job search,” Jenkins said. “And don’t make it any harder than it has to be.”

Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance writer, audience development consultant and journalism trainer. She is a graduate of the Poynter-ONA Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and led teams at Bloomberg News and Business Insider. She got her start as a local newspaper reporter covering a night police beat in Texas.

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Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer and editorial consultant whose prior stops include Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Yahoo. Her first full-time news job was as a…
Meena Thiruvengadam

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