Laying off Workers is Hard

Written by:
Benjamin Geyerhahn
December 15, 2020

One of the hardest parts of running a business is laying people off. This is especially hard when the reasons have nothing to do with the employee. The Covid pandemic, which has led to the shutdown of vast sections of the economy is the most recent example of this.

Millions of people lost their jobs for reasons that had nothing to do with their abilities. These employees and their families face the loss of salary and healthcare and overall stability. Business owners had only hard choices, and retaining employees beyond your ability to pay them is not an option, so owners and managers have made the decision to part ways with employees.

The “off-boarding” system is also not especially helpful to employees who lose their jobs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t intended to be. The main paradigm from which we operate is that people we lay-off or terminate no longer deserve our attention. They have been cast away so why waste time designing a system for them?

Most businesspeople are not this callous, but systematically, it’s easy to understand why we focus very little on making “outplacement” a better experience.

The good news is we can do better, and help is easy and inexpensive. Here are a few ideas.

First, COBRA is the worst available health insurance alternative. It’s very expensive, and most terminated employees will be eligible for low-cost Obamacare plans or free Medicaid coverage. There are services that will help your employees (including ours) and can save you money.

Second, separate severance and transition. Allow people to stop working as soon as possible, and pay them out their severance on that date. It may seem abrupt but this has several benefits. Former employees are eligible for unemployment more quickly, and psychologically everyone moves on more quickly.

Third, take the time to listen. It can seem scary to take conversations with employees who are terminated, and your lawyers may tell you not to have such calls. I make a practice of honoring requests for conversations. While liability concerns make it important to include another employee, and to avoid commitments or comments about reasons for termination, just listening and absorbing what the terminated employee is telling you can go a long way. These folks are human beings. Most want to be heard, and often re-assured that they are really being terminated because of circumstances, and even when it’s something more difficult, I find you are more able to diffuse complicated situations when you begin by listening.