Expert Advice

Layoffs: How to Handle Letting Employees Go

| Updated November 28, 2017

Laying off good employees is difficult, but sometimes necessary

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

Money is tight at my nonprofit and my board feels we’ve got to cut back on costs. I have been told I need to let three of my employees go, who are not only good team members, but friends to me as well. I just can’t seem to make myself terminate these folks, but I only have a few more days before they must go.

I do know the board is correct, but I hate this. How can I make this right with myself and my remaining staff?

Gary says ...

This may sound a little harsh, but don’t make close friends in the workplace, especially with direct reports. Things like this will inevitably arise in the workplace. As a decision-maker, you must always try to be as objective and sensitive as possible when dealing with unexpected layoffs.

Clearly, the best approach is telling the truth and facing this head-on. No need to try and make excuses or worry about hurting their feelings. Treat these people with professionalism and respect. Your job is to help guide them through this very tough process with honesty. If you feel comfortable, tell them you would be happy to write a letter of reference or make a recommendation for future employment. Be brief and professional. No need to make this linger with emotion and undue stress.

Kathryn says ...

A good leader does what has to be done for the organization and the mission. A great leader moves heaven and earth to take care of their clients, staff, volunteers and organization. Nonetheless, sometimes you must make very hard and painful decisions. How does your reluctance to do what's necessary help forward your mission or serve those in need if your organization runs out of operating funds and must shut down?

Treat each person who is being let go with respect for the efforts and impact they have made. As a great leader, your job is to be honest, transparent and supportive of staff who must move on to make the organization financially viable. Sit down with them and explain the issues. Offer them the very best severance package you can manage, tell them you will write a letter of recommendation (or take recommendation phone calls) and don’t contest their unemployment benefits should they choose to apply. Tell them they did a great job and it is not their fault.

Once, a boss told me to let people go without showing any feelings or concern, or without saying “I am sorry” — don’t be that unfeeling person. At the same time, know that if you are going on and on about how sad you are about their termination, it will make the situation worse — no one is sorrier in this scenario than the person who has lost their job. Be kind, but be brief.

This is one of the toughest tasks you will ever have to take on – do it with dignity and care for those who have given so much.

Now, your take!

Robert P says ... The scenario presented does not mention the size of the organization involved. Gary’s advice, aside from being “harsh” as he put it, is effectively useless in smaller organizations. He advises “Don’t make close friends in the workplace especially with direct reports.” Well, that may be fine and good in an organization of 50 or more employees, where the executive can perch on the top floor, perhaps take a private elevator, and remain a something of an urban legend to employees. But it doesn’t work in a smaller organization — one wonders, moreover, precisely who the executive would actually speak to if underlings are beneath him/her, and “direct reports” are to be kept at an arm’s length.

People are social animals and have a natural tendency to seek out others with whom they can from bonds. This is especially true in the workplace, a truly artificial environment where the only thing bringing a certain collection of people together is the commonality of the job. Professional advice columns are replete with references to “team building” and “working as a team.” How, one might ask Gary, is a “team” supposed to form if trust, mutual respect, and caring –the hallmarks of friendship- are absent? For the smaller organization, less than 25, it is even harder, since the probability is that the same people will interact repeatedly during the course of a day. Bonds will form, and generally make the organization stronger for their existence. The fungible thing here is the caveat of not forming “close” relationships. Where, precisely, is that boundary?

We are long removed from the days of Dagwood and Mr. Dithers, where the boss and his wife were regular dinner guests. But does having lunch together count? What about having the occasional drink after work? How about a significant personal event like a child’s graduation? Is Gary’s advice that the boss never be invited and, if invited, never attend? Just where does the alarm kick in and warn, “DANGER…close friendship impending”? Gary may buy the old adage “it’s lonely at the top,” and perhaps revels in his isolation, but there is nothing particularly attractive about a workplace where the boss/supervisor/leader is a remote, cold figure. Firings and other dismissals are, for all but a few psychopaths, never fun. And honesty IS the best policy. But I fundamentally disagree with Gary’s approach and see little “professional or respectful” in just showing people the door. I am frankly surprised he didn’t add that the whole thing should take no more than 90 seconds.

I won’t even bother addressing his advice about “No need to…worry about their feelings.” Yup…just kick ‘em to the curb and judge it a good day. Way to go…

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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