When Emily Tsitrian lost her job in mass layoffs in late 2022, she was heartbroken. But the way the layoffs and the offboarding process were handled meant that she left with her dignity intact. She’s still rooting for her former employer. “I felt respected as a professional and a person,” she says. “Despite the shock of the news, I felt the treatment was compassionate and respectful of the work I had contributed.”

Layoffs, mostly in the technology sector, continue to make headlines as companies grapple with an uncertain economy and try to correct for pandemic-era overhiring. The process can be particularly impersonal in the era of remote and hybrid work: Some employees learned they lost their jobs only after discovering their work email and messaging accounts were disabled.

While layoffs will always be painful, they can be conducted with empathy and compassion. 

“A company can look out for its employees, right until the end,” says Lori Aiken, vice president for global talent management at Indeed. Layoffs should always be a last resort; when they are unavoidable, here are six ways to do them respectfully. 

Keep Things Human 

When leaders get together to plan big HR decisions, they sometimes focus only on numbers and the bottom line. Earlier in her career, Aiken learned a technique to keep the human at the heart of those conversations.  

“Whenever you think that you are losing sight of the employee, get up and move a chair to the middle of the floor to represent the person,” she says. “It’s a way of saying, ‘How would this feel if the employee were here, listening?’” In remote and hybrid work, the chair can be virtual, a digital image posted in a chat. 

“The chair might not change the outcome,” Aiken adds. “But it does force everyone to stop and take a step back.”

Take extra care to consider how layoffs may impact underrepresented groups. “People notice when layoffs largely impact only Black folks, remote workers or people with disabilities,” says Amber N. Cabral, an inclusion strategist, speaker and author. A compassionate layoff entails “looking at who is being impacted disproportionately.” 

Break the News with Compassion — and Accountability

After a layoff, employees — both those who were laid off and those who remain — want answers. How and why was the decision made? How were the reductions approached? What happens now?

A letter from the CEO can provide responses to those questions. But the announcement itself is also an opportunity for leadership to express regret and compassion for departing team members. 

Messages from the CEOs of Airbnb, Coursera, Stripe and HubSpot are considered strong examples of the form. As Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote: “The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb.” 

When Indeed underwent layoffs, CEO Chris Hyams took accountability in a company-wide town hall meeting (the announcement email was also posted online for full transparency). “He absolutely referenced macroeconomic conditions,” says Mike Eaton, senior director of global talent management at Indeed, “but he also said, ‘We’re where we are because of decisions our leadership team made.’ He did not put any of it off.”

Similarly, the email that Stripe CEO Patrick Collison sent to employees went into detail regarding what he called the company’s “consequential mistakes.” “For me, the email took accountability,” Tsitrian says. “The acknowledgment from the top was validating.”

Make Time for Real Discussion

A company-wide message from the CEO, no matter how eloquent and sincere, is still no substitute for the give-and-take of a conversation. 

“Even in large-scale layoffs, affected employees should have private communication with their manager or a leader,” says Elaine Varelas, a managing partner at leadership consultancy Keystone Partners. Managers can set up those meetings in person if possible, or on a video call.

After the initial announcement of layoffs at Indeed, Eaton says, affected employees were promptly given the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations. “You try to provide closure as quickly as possible.”

Image shows a conference room with an empty table and chairs during golden hour. The walls are white with one wall being covered with white curtains and an open 'warehouse' style ceiling. The light shining in is casting shadows across the room and the shadows of two people are standing at the opposite end of the table reviewing papers.
During what is a disruptive and difficult time, many companies also offer mental health support to departing and remaining employees; Indeed offered employees a series of grief counseling sessions.

“Give people the courtesy of a human discussion,” says Teresa Sayler, HR manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota. “It needs to be a safe space to process the information, to ask questions, and see how the company will support them as they transition to their next opportunity. Employees typically experience shock, so these discussions don’t last long, but the messaging needs to be empathetic and compassionate yet also direct.”

One-on-one discussions are ideal, but they’re not always possible if a whole division is affected. “You still want to do it in a way that’s as personal as possible,” Eaton says. “If it can’t be one-to-one, you can still aim to do it in a smaller team.”

Design Exit Packages with Special Care 

A generous exit package is the most obvious way to show departing employees that their contributions to the company were valuable and appreciated. Depending on industry, company and tenure, an exit package might include salary continuation; an employer-paid period of continued benefits; bonuses; unused PTO/vacation pay; and RSUs, or restricted stock units.

But also consider more unexpected ways to lessen the impact. “I have seen companies time layoffs so people have access to a full month of continued health care, recognizing the financial hardship it would otherwise pose,” Varelas says.

During what is a disruptive and difficult time, many companies also offer mental health support to departing and remaining employees. For example, Indeed offered employees a series of well-attended grief counseling sessions with noted executive coach Rajkumari Neogy. And given that layoffs are especially tough for visa holders, companies might consider providing them extra assistance, including immigration support: Many have only 60 days to find a new job before they must return to their home countries.

Help People Move Forward 

More companies are allowing employees to keep their work laptops and home office equipment — important tools for finding new work. (Companies can use remote tools to clean company data from their computers, like HubSpot recently did.) Career coaching and job placement programs can be included in the exit package, while managers can make introductions, provide references and even offer resume-writing support.

At the time of its 2020 layoffs, Airbnb launched a public-facing alumni talent website, with profiles, resumes and work samples accessible to potential employers. It also dedicated part of its recruiting team to alumni outplacement, and offered people four months of access to career transition and job placement services.

Losing a job doesn’t mean people deserve to be cut off from their colleagues. In addition to offering transitional resources following layoffs, actively encourage remaining employees to stay connected with those who were affected and offer peer support. 

That sense of continuity means a lot, says Tsitrian, who co-founded a startup called Yeeld after she was laid off from Stripe. “Going from a full-time job to being unemployed can be traumatic,” she says. “Continuing to have social connectivity with your team members and community is an important way to ease the transition.”

Restore Morale Among Remaining Employees

Layoffs are not just painful for the employees being let go — they can also be difficult and disruptive for those spared. After layoffs, 71% of those who remain at a company say their motivation dips, while 65% say they are overworked, according to a 2022 survey

“People should not underestimate the lift required to build morale, to find the balance between respecting the past and mourning the loss, while pushing forward,” Eaton says.

“You also get a lot of ‘quiet quitting,’” Aiken says. “‘My hands and feet show up, but I checked my heart and mind at the door.’” 

Years ago, Aiken was interning at a telecommunications giant when it spun off a major division and laid off thousands of people. As she followed through with her internship and watched people grapple with change, Aiken started keeping a list — useful for leaders and managers to keep in mind — of all the ways layoffs can affect remaining employees.

“They’re words that start with ‘C,’” Aiken says. “Confidence — that can erode. ‘Am I next?’ Control. ‘Does my work change? Am I marginalized?’ Comfort. ‘I used to know how things get done.’ Compensation. ‘Maybe my base salary changes, or my bonus does.’ Colleagues. ‘Did I lose my work best friend?’”

It’s important for companies to redouble their efforts to build a great place to work. Remaining employees will also want assurance that they are essential to the future of the organization.

“They need to feel like they have a stake in the future of the company,” Aiken says. “Zero in on your top talent to say, ‘Hang in there with us. You are critical. Despite how disruptive this has been, we have a path for you.’”

Jobs may disappear, but people do not — and they still deserve your attention, support and respect.