The tech world has recently been roiled by waves of layoffs, as companies like Meta, Amazon, Twitter and more have shed thousands of jobs over a matter of weeks. In October 2022, a tech hub like Seattle alone lost 5,900 jobs in the sector.
Many industry watchers see the recent trend as an overdue correction of the sky-high valuation of tech companies in the pandemic era, as well as an ominous sign for rough economic waters ahead in what could be a potential recession in 2023. As companies face tough choices about their workforce size, more corporate leaders will likely need to do one of the hardest things they’re called upon to do in the job — look someone in the eye and let them go.
Of course, one side effect of the recent shift to virtual work has been more leaders shying away from their personal responsibility to level with employees, instead letting them know through, shall we say, less personal means — whether by text message or mass layoffs over Zoom.
All the way back in the 2009 modern classic Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character made a living as a hotshot consultant flying from office park to office park across the country and breaking the bad news about layoffs on behalf of CEOs too cowardly to do it themselves. Firing and laying off talent has never been easy, but our social skills have seemed to only atrophy in recent years as we increasingly bury our eyes in devices. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the human consequences, or worse yet, to make the decision to fire all about ourselves.
In my own experience of owning companies over the past two decades, I’ve unfortunately had to let people go myself. It’s one of the single hardest things to do in business. It outright sucks. None of us get into entrepreneurship with a vision of one day sending someone home to their families with this bad news. But it’s important to accept that it’s part of the territory — and it’s a necessary evil that you do it the right way.
As leaders, here are some tips that I have learned over the years to make it better for employees and managers:
This is hard news to absorb. Don’t lie or conceal the underlying reasons that have led to the decision, whether they are part of a team that has been eliminated due to redundancies or if they have a personal performance challenge.
Think about the rest of their career journey.
One mistake that leaders often make is failing to consider the long run; do they want this person to leave with a positive impression of the organization and how the decision to part ways was made?
There may be ways you can help to position the person for success in their next role — whether it’s a recommendation or simply investing in severance that gives them an opportunity to stay on their feet while they begin the process of looking for their next opportunity. Think about ways you might be able to introduce them to others in your network or otherwise help them in the next steps if they’re leaving on good terms and open to you reaching out.
Don’t blindside them.
In most cases, this news shouldn’t come as a shock. Put in a clear warning process to help prepare people, whether it’s a personal performance issue or an industry trend that is threatening parts of the business.
Embrace the concept of taking extreme ownership.
Your role is to build a great team and empower them to succeed; thus, you should be holding yourself accountable when someone is not the right fit or no longer aligned with the organization’s current needs. Go into the conversation with humility and a recognition that their departure reflects on you as much as it reflects on their own abilities.
It’s a tough conversation to have — both with them and with yourself. But ultimately these tough conversations are what can help you to be the best possible leader. I have learned this lesson the hard way over the years; it takes maturity to look within oneself and realize that attrition problems often say much more about the leader than those who have left.
The bottom line is that firings and layoffs are an inevitable part of leading an organization. But extraordinary leaders rise to these tough moments and find ways to ensure everyone can move forward in the most constructive and forward-looking way possible.