Centering Dignity in Employee Departures

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As the COVID-19 pandemic gave way to massive economic fallout in early 2020, company downsizing soon became an inevitable reality. The harsh truth is, layoffs hurt. They hurt the person delivering the tough news, and it certainly hurts being on the receiving end. Letting employees go can be one of the most heart-wrenching things a leader has to do, but it is also an unfortunate reality that must be handled with grace. And amidst an ongoing crisis that threatened job security on a national and global scale, that level of respect must rise to new heights.

There’s no shortage of articles out there on how to lay an employee off gently, but I can’t help but notice a lack of literature on dignified employee layoff from an organizational perspective. What responsibility does an organization have in ensuring a laid off employee is cared for? To what lengths should it go in order to make them feel valued and looked out for?

When considering the entire scope of the employee journey—in this case, the very end of it—it’s paramount for an organization to follow through and consider an employee’s needs, even throughout their exit. Caring leaders continue to listen to employees and their emotions during their departure, even if some argue they no longer have an obligation to do so. 

The other day, I was having a conversation with an executive leader about a recent termination they passed down. I reminded them how important it was to maintain the dignity of the person losing their job, and consider his or her mixed feelings as they walk out the door. To hammer home the point, I shared my own experience being let go. 

Years prior to my current career as an employee engagement consultant, I was affected by a far-reaching wave of layoffs at my organization. Of course, it hurt to be laid off, and I was quite shocked for many reasons. But a few moments throughout the process gave me much needed hope. First, the manager who delivered the news was noticeably emotional during the conversation. He wasn’t abrasive, hostile, or unemotional. He was open, honest, and human, which made me feel truly cared for in a meaningful way. I could tell my pain was causing him pain in return.

Second, I shared with my human resources leader that my family wasn’t insured at the time, outside of the benefits I was provided as an employee. So she went out of her way to make sure my family was insured for the next three months until I could secure another job. It was an act of grace and courtesy that not many leaders would take.

As a result of these two caring leaders’ gestures, I didn’t speak poorly of the organization after leaving. In fact, I praised them long after I was gone.

When centering dignity in employee departures, this is what’s at stake. Not only is someone else’s future on the line, but your organization’s reputation is on the line. When leaders continue to take care of their employees throughout the whole of the employee journey, the exiting employee will realize how much you value them as a human, and perhaps become an advocate for your organization down the road.

In addition, when we listen to those leaving our organization, we can glean valuable insight around employee retention, employee satisfaction, and organizational recruitment through honest feedback. Listen to what they have to say, and focus on learning from it as an organization hoping to improve their internal processes. When we lead from this place of honesty, transparency, and empathy, all parties involved feel supported in an otherwise painful conversation. When all is said and done, a dignified discussion has no losers.

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