Layoffs: The one that haunts me

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I had to lay off the spouse of a cancer patient. It felt as awful as it sounds.

COVID took us for a ride. The pandemic resulted in a precipitous decline in performance in record time. We built a survival plan which had layoffs as a last resort.

For a service company like ours, people are your largest asset. They are also your largest expense. After cutting out several expenses to match the circumstances, we began the process of evaluating the team. This led to the decision to eliminate the role that was held by an employee whose spouse was dealing with cancer. 

In a small business (We had about 60 people), this kind of decision cuts differently. You really get to know people more intimately. That can be great. But familiarity is a double edged sword.  

It’s almost impossible to divorce what you know about their work from what you know about their lives. It makes these decisions all the more agonizing. 

It’s a complicated balance when you are simultaneously responsible for the spreadsheets and the layoff scripts.

I knew what her spouse was going through, I knew what she was going through and worst of all, I knew what kind of domino effect this decision would have on her life. When you lay someone off, it’s not just the employee who is impacted. It’s their families, their kids, their spouses, it’s essentially an ecosystem that’s gone…and you’re responsible for that. 

Rookie Take:

As part of this process we had to eliminate several roles. Luckily, all the others employees that would have been affected were able to find other opportunities prior to the date I had set for the layoffs to take effect. 

Unfortunately, for this employee, she couldn’t find other employment. I barely slept for the five nights leading up to the actual conversation, and I insisted on doing it myself and not delegating it to her direct manager. 

In hindsight, I wonder if that was the right call.


I had laid people off before in my roles in larger organizations. Those felt more programmatic. Maybe that was because I was responsible for one or two aspects of the plan, as opposed to the entire plan.

I wanted to make this process as human as possible and respectful of all the valuable work she’d done for us. I set up a time to talk face-to-face (via Zoom), but things didn’t quite work out. Her connection wasn’t good, so it ended up just happening over the phone.

I started by offering up context

 I explained what was happening in the industry and the market and how our business was impacted by extension. She had seen some colleagues depart without their roles being filled. I disclosed that unfortunately we needed to make more changes now because of the uncertainty imposed by the pandemic. 

I told her she was Impacted

I explained the reason for the call and that we could no longer employ her due to the circumstances. There was a brief pause and then a lot of emotion. It felt like an hour even though it was actually only a few minutes. I asked if she wanted to stay a while or leave with pay. She chose to stay for a two weeks.

I offered Support

She got a small severance, and I pointed here to several other resources that were available including job placement and other services available through our outsourced HR provider. I also told her she could reach out directly to me if she needed to.

I look forward to our business becoming successful enough to create more robust opportunities for people when situations like this inevitably recur. It doesn’t take the sting away but I hope it creates a softer landing than we are currently able to provide. 

RookieCEO top reads

How to Manage Coronavirus Layoffs with Compassion

Coronavirus has led to business instability and remote layoffs, so being empathetic during this challenging time is key.

Key insight: Remote layoffs can be dehumanizing as it is, so it’s essential to take time to be compassionate, transparent, and offer assistance if possible.

Summary: Layoffs take a toll on everyone involved, so if you find yourself in a position where you must deliver the news to an employee, it’s crucial to consider both theirs and your mental health during the process. Whether monetary or personal, assist them in helping them manage. And while doing so, take care of yourself during this challenging time.

Managers Communicating Lay-offs: Good communication is critical in the planning and implementation of layoffs. 

This is a practical guide to help you structure and manage a difficult conversation around layoffs with an employee.

Key insight: Good communication is vital to make this process easier for you and the employee, and this is a practical guide that helps you manage each step of the conversation.

Summary: This is a great guide to help you navigate difficult conversations with employees around layoffs and prepare accordingly. The guide touches on everything from the prep before the meeting to steps to take after the talk. This guide can help you plan out what to say, tips on how to handle the conversation, dos, and don’ts, and what kinds of reactions you might expect.

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