I showed up at a customer site one morning and swiped my security card to enter the building as I had done for more than a year.
Beep! (There was a red light on the card reader)
Hmm – perhaps I didn’t swipe it right. So, I try again.
Beep! (Again, with a red light on the card reader)
I went across the street to the security office, wondering whether my card had become defective.
When the security guard looked up my record, he informed me my card wasn’t working because the company had terminated my contract the previous day.
I said, “that’s interesting, thanked him for letting me know and left.”
The terminated contract wasn’t overly surprising to me. The writing had been on the wall for a while, and I had even initiated several conversations to bring things to their conclusion.
I wasn’t upset by how my contract was terminated.
However, I did wonder what the event said about the organization’s culture that I’d been missing.
Whenever I tell this story, people are shocked that it happened.
It wasn’t the terminated contract that shocked people. Having contracts terminated is a reality of choosing to be an independent contractor. (thankfully, it hasn’t happened too many times to me)
The shock people express is that they didn’t even give me the courtesy to tell me they were doing it.
They left the unpleasant task of giving me the news to a security guard who doesn’t even work for the company. However, I felt for the security guard giving his sheepish look while telling me the news.
Recently, events such as this have become more commonplace. Or, perhaps these events have become more publicized.
Take, for example, the tech industry where tens of thousands have been laid off in recent months.
While I wish it weren’t true, the reality is that culturally, we’ve normalized layoffs as an acceptable way of balancing the books and ensuring shareholder returns.
Despite this reality, why are we seeing so many poor leadership moves when people’s lives are about to be disrupted?
Google, for example, laid off 12,000 people by sending individuals an email to their personal addresses. I can’t imagine waking up one morning, pouring a cup of coffee and finding an email telling me I’m now unemployed.
Whatever happened to delivering such news individually and in face-to-face meetings, even if you deliver the news virtually?
PagerDuty’s CEO quoted Martin Luther King in her email to inform people of the layoffs:
“The ultimate measure of a [leader] is not where [they] stand in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they] stand in times of challenge and controversy.” — Martin Luther King
Whatever happened to sensitivity and diplomacy while delivering bad news?
Likely one of the worst layoff stories I’ve seen was how the CEO of Better.com handled informing his staff.
In a one-way Zoom call, he told them he’s letting 15% of the staff go.
He went on to say, “This is the second time in my career I’m doing this, and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it, I cried; this time, I hope to be stronger.”
Although I’m all for a bit of vulnerability, that wasn’t the time to make it all about you.
One of the best experiences I’ve had in times of cuts happened twenty years ago when I was working for a large financial organization.
When I joined the company, I knew there was a significant likelihood they would be acquired soon.
This is why the acquisition news was hardly surprising during an all-hands meeting with the CEO.
In this all-hands meeting, the CEO told us they expected the merger of the two companies to take more than two years.
He told us that at the end of the two years, some of us would be laid off due to redundancy between the two companies.
One differentiator is that he told us our managers would meet with us individually in the hours following this meeting to let us know where we stood.
While such news is always challenging to deliver and receive, the clarity of messaging, thoughtful plan and individual connection made it easier to hear. But, of course, it also helps that the company looked after everyone with support, compensation, and continued clarity of how things were going.
(If you’re wondering, I remained an employee of this company for many years to come.)
Letting employees go is a challenging task, whether for a performance issue or the result of a decision to downsize your employee base.
I know how hard it can be, as I’ve had to let people go numerous times in my career.
Despite how hard it can be to carry out this unpleasant task, it can be done responsibly and compassionately.
This is true for anything you don’t want to be doing.
To start, notice your anxiety as you prepare for an unpleasant task.
Feeling anxious is a normal response to difficult activities.
Don’t let your anxiety run the show.
Instead, check in on how you’re feeling about what you need to do.
Are you trying to blame or create excuses through your words or actions? Are you approaching the task with shame or obligation?
While all are normal mindsets, they all amount to trying to avoid your anxiety. You won’t have a good outcome when approaching any task from such mindsets.
To change this reality, start by acknowledging to yourself what you’re feeling. Nervous? Uncertain? Avoidant?
Whatever you’re feeling, you will start to disempower your anxiety when you acknowledge and name it for yourself.
Then, set an intention for how you want to approach the unpleasant task.
With compassion? In full support of the other person?
Whatever your intention, the outcome will be far better when you use it to guide your actions.
Sometimes leadership requires you to complete tasks you’d rather not be tasked with. However, with a bit of thoughtfulness and planning, you can approach them in a way that lets your leadership shine.
You’ve got this.