Since the beginning of the year, more than 17 million Americans have lost their jobs. Someone had to let them go.
Most bosses who aren't Donald Trump say that laying people off is one of the toughest tasks they face. And they have to do it more frequently all the time. In hopes of helping both firer and the fired, we talked to pros in the employment and therapy fields to come up with some advice for those who must wield the ax.
First rule: When delivering bad news, get to the point quickly, clearly and concisely. Jeffrey Garber, founder of the career services Web site 360jobinterview.com, says he once fired a graphic designer who had trouble getting the message. "The employee said, 'I can change,' " he remembers. "She went on for half an hour, with me trying to tell her it was a final decision."
Cover what you need to cover but avoid using a script, advises David Noer, an executive coach and consultant in Greensboro, N.C., and author of "Healing the Wounds: Overcoming the Trauma of Layoffs and Revitalizing Downsized Organizations." Too often young managers try to cope with the stress of firing people by resorting to a checklist provided by the human resources department or an outplacement firm. "There's a danger in communicating facts in such a stilted way that you come off like Mr. Spock," Noer says.
Empathy is essential, advises Jane Praeger, a New York media coach. "It's not about you. It's about your audience," she says. "Think about what the other person needs." Be prepared, she adds, to "sit with silences and empathize without sugarcoating. Much of what people need to learn about speaking is actually about learning to listen."
Paul Browde, a Manhattan psychiatrist, agrees. "Part of being a boss is being able to accept people's rage," he says. "It's most helpful for the person being fired if you can take their rage in a calm, accepting, understanding way."
Browde, who has counseled both bosses and laid-off employees, notes that workers who get layoff news often have no qualms about telling the boss how devastated they are. The boss must learn to listen, without detaching. "It's a bit like being a doctor who is delivering bad news," Browde says. "You have to feel compassion, even if you don't express it."
What if the boss has to lay off a large number of people at once? Browde says it's important for the supervisor to regroup between meetings, so that he or she can focus on each individual employee. Find someone outside the company to confide in. A quick call to a sympathetic friend or confidante can help a lot.
When letting go of a smaller number of employees, consider a novel idea from Manhattan career counselor Eileen Wolkstein: Use the layoff meeting as an opportunity to tell the employee about his or her strengths. "I've known people who've walked out of being fired and said thank you," Wolkstein says. In a situation where the layoff is purely the result of cost-cutting, and the employee has been a strong performer, you can communicate specific ways the employee did a great job. You can also offer to tap connections and recommend the employee for other positions.
What about legal considerations? Katharine Parker, a management-side employment attorney at the law firm Proskauer Rose, says the most important thing for a boss to keep in mind is the importance of having a legitimate business reason for the layoff. You don't need to articulate the reason at the time of the layoff, but you must be prepared to do so in case of a legal challenge. Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, disability or religion. Legitimate reasons can range from unsatisfactory performance to cost-cutting to management restructuring.
We can all only hope there will be less need for this kind of advice soon.
© 2012 Forbes.com