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Laying off: And saying good-bye gracefully….

By Diana Ballon | Dec 7, 2021

Thousands of people have lost their jobs during this pandemic, many in longstanding jobs they expected to have for years to come. The Canadian government reported 8.9 million applicants for CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit) as of October 4, 2020, while a CBC report indicated that, in the first two months of Covid, “1.5 million Canadian women lost their jobs.”

Layoffs can occur very suddenly, often without any kind of formal good-bye or thank you. During the pandemic, these terminations can feel even more traumatic with many people working from home, and thus isolated from colleagues who may well have been supportive and offered their condolences if they had been in the workplace with them and aware of the situation.

Silence isn’t always golden

An abrupt termination process so often described by people losing their jobs left me wondering about the rationale for people’s lack of response. But as I learnt, there isn’t necessarily a legal impediment. Employment lawyer Kumail Karimjee says, “it may simply be bad manners at play.” But he also cites other reasons. Employers may want to avoid contact with a departed employee if there are unresolved issues in the severance; for example, if the organization is still negotiating a settlement and there is potential for conflict, he explains. And while there is no prohibition [on what you can say], it’s a little more delicate,” he says. He adds: “Sometimes terminations are done in a very cold, very scripted way to avoid risk. Employers may worry that they could say the wrong thing, so the play it safe by not saying anything.”

People’s silence likely also reflects human behaviour: people tend to avoid speaking about difficult situations, and don’t want to be put in a position where they will have to discuss something they would rather not think about. So employers — and employees — err on the side of caution by simply not saying anything, Karimjee explains.

An emotional rollercoaster — for all employees

Toronto-based career and leadership coach Ranya Elan is aware of the emotional rollercoaster involved in losing a job. She has directly supported hundreds of people with layoffs, exits and other career transitions, and thousands of people indirectly.

“People are coping with everything from anger to depression to relief, grief and anxiety, sometimes all in the same day,” she says.

Registered Psychotherapist Catherine Wood concurs, noting that it’s impossible for people’s self-esteem not to be impacted to some extent when they are terminated from their job, whether this is due to layoff or because of performance issues. For the minority whose self-esteem is based solely on their work success without the balance of friends and family, interests and hobbies, the impact is that much greater, Wood says.

But layoffs don’t just impact the people losing their jobs.

“I have sometimes spent more time counselling managers than the employee exiting,” says Elan, especially the ones who will have to be delivering the news, she says. And the co-workers of people who have lost their jobs may also be in a bad place: they may be dealing with everything from survivor guilt, to resentment for having to assume responsibility for a disproportionate amount of the workload in their colleagues’ absence, to feeling vulnerable and anxious about potentially getting laid off themselves, Elan explains.

While the effects of layoffs during Covid have been magnified by people not having access to their usual support system — both formal and informal — work life for people who have kept their jobs has also been much more challenging.

“Some types of businesses have had a huge increase in demand for their products and services, which has created a disproportionate workload for some during this time,” says Elan. The pandemic has also augmented stress for employees trying to care for children doing “at home” school; they may be worried about their own health and the health of more vulnerable family members, and they may be struggling to support others when they are feeling stretched themselves.

“I would like employers to be more aware – to have a bit more grace during this time,” says Elan. “More importantly, leaders now more than ever need to build effective relationships with their employees and be able to have clear conversations. There may be many reasons for an employee underperforming at this time, and without a conversation and a strong relationship, neither the employee nor the organization will be able to move forward.”

What to say to an employee getting laid off

Elan cites Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s announcement about employee layoffs as a model of how an employer can compassionately deliver a message about a layoff — and with complete transparency. Chesky did not hide the details. He announced the number of people affected — nearly 1900 teammates or about a quarter of his workforce. He explained how they arrived at the decision. And he explained what they would do for the people who were leaving and how the layoffs would happen.

As Chesky demonstrated, there are better ways to lay off employees. Here are some tips from the experts on how an employer can speak to someone being laid off:

  • Thank them for what they contributed, for their service and good work (presuming they are not leaving because of a performance issue).
  • Share the level of support you can offer (e.g., references, letter of support, connections to people on LinkedIn).
  • Offer to stay connected without overcommitting, if this is a relationship that you valued while you worked together, and you want to sustain a relationship that is a semblance of what you had when you worked together.
  • Avoid speaking to the employee about the impact their layoff has had on you. If you need support and are feeling badly, reach out to others in your life, but — at least in the short term — let the focus be on the feelings and experience of the person losing their job.

Moving on

While thousands of Canadians have lost their jobs during Covid, many have left voluntarily. It’s not just a trend – it’s a movement. The “big quit” or “Great Resignation” reflects people’s growing awareness of how current work situations no longer serve them.

Whether your work situation ends voluntarily or involuntarily, use it as an opportunity, a time to re-evaluate, and as a time to seek out work conditions and experience that feels meaningful and makes you happy. That means “being ready for the next job, open to feedback, and kind to yourself,” says Wood.

“[Sometimes] new opportunities … means thinking outside of the box and retraining and going for that dream job you never let yourself have before….. No matter what, there are always options when people allow themselves to consider them.”

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