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Karin’s Leadership Articles

How to Support Your Team During an Unexpected Layoff

by | Apr 13, 2020 | By Karin Hurt, Courageous Cultures, Relationships |

The Emotional Throes of an Unexpected Layoff

My heart has been breaking all day. I’ve been doing the best I can with the onslaught of phone calls, emails, and texts from incredible leaders in the emotional throes of an unexpected layoff.

“I’ve been laid off.”

“I had to lay off my entire team.”

“We were headed for our best year ever, and now we’ve closed our doors.”

“Just as we had everything moving in the right direction…”

“My team and I all just lost our jobs.”

“I’m tired.”    “I’m sad.”    “Angry.”    “Frustrated.”    “Lonely.”    “Confused.”

Me too.

David just came in and asked, “What are you doing?”

“Writing an article about unexpected layoffs. Here’s what I have so far (showing him the title and a blank screen).”

That’s when I realized I needed a nap.

There are no easy answers right now. The best we can do is try.

How to Show Up Human During This Unexpected Layoff

I’ve written about recovering from a downsizing before. Sadly, I’m a bit of a reluctant expert having managed more RIFs than I care to count – both as an HR professional organizing the plan and a manager being told to downsize my team.

Leading through a layoff is one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do as a leader.

And this is way harder.

No one saw this coming. Performance has nothing to do with it. The humans you are laying off are in the midst of one of the most stressful times in their lives. So are you. Each person’s story is heart-wrenching.

You can’t communicate in person. The economy is in a tailspin—you know it will not be easy for them to find something else in the midst of this madness.

And yet, based on what I’m hearing, a lot of managers are screwing this up—choosing to show up detached and matter of fact, “after all this isn’t personal.”

And so I humbly offer the best advice I have for this challenging time.

1. Banish the word non-essential.

I get it. The Governor made a distinction for public safety. But NO ONE wants to hear that the job they’ve been pouring their heart and soul into isn’t vital.

“Are you freaking kidding me? If my job was non-essential why did I work all those nights and weekends, including taking all those emergency calls from my boss in the middle of dinner? Even if they asked me to come back, I’m not sure I would.”

2. Turn on the camera and look them in the eye.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable. It’s crazy to have to tell someone they don’t have a job remotely. But, PLEASE don’t hide behind an email.

“I had just gotten our whole team used to this idea of working from home, and we had established a new routine, and then bam … we all got the exact same email telling us we had no job. Seriously, they couldn’t bother to tell us personally? You would think they would care about us more than that!”

3. Help them process their feelings.

“It’s not personal,” is about the worst thing you can say. Of course, this is personal. Losing your job is stressful under any circumstance. But it’s likely that this news is on top of some other traumatic stress they’re dealing with.  Go slow. Be a listener. Help them to process what’s happening.

4. Be a resource.

Endorse them on Linkedin. Help them clean up their profile. Leverage your network to help them find a job. “But what if they find something else, and I lose the opportunity to bring them back?” Then you will find someone else and know that you did the right thing.

5. Keep the door open.

Don’t make promises. But if you’d love to bring them back, don’t be afraid to tell them. People need to know how much you value them. Particularly during an unexpected layoff. Humans want to be needed. Be human.

6. Streamline the work for everyone else.

generate new ideas after an unexpected layoff with the IDEA Incubator Guide

generate new ideas after an unexpected layoff with the IDEA Incubator Guide

It’s unlikely that you “just cut the fat.” Figure out how to support your stressed and overwhelmed team that remains after this unexpected layoff. Ask them for their best ideas on how to streamline the work and to serve your customers during this challenging time.

7. Find the support you need.

This unexpected layoff is not your fault. You know that intellectually, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Acknowledge your emotions. Cry if it helps. You are human, trying to lead the best you can in the middle of one of the most stressful moments in your life. Find people who care about you and ask for help.

Your Thoughts?

What would you add? What’s your best advice for showing up human during an unexpected layoff?

See Also: How to Survive a Layoff

How to Learn From Your Employees During This Crisis

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.



    Real Leaders show care regardless of the circumstances. Most team members want to know if their leader really cares about them and why should that change now. I believe your steps are super meaningful and an authentic engagement with compassion goes a long way. In my mind, our constant goal is to continue serving with thoughtfulness. It’s hard times but true humility and compassion doesn’t have to stop. I heard of a company that set up a Zoom call without an agenda and then an assistant to the CEO gave a 2 minute termination notice to 406 team members. Not sure if it’s true but not the way to do it. Thanks for sharing great truth in difficult times.

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much, Rick. I really appreciate your thoughtful insights. I really hope that example is not true, but I’m hearing some similar stories. So agree with you that humility and compassion are even more important now.


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