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EX-it: Why it is good to take layoffs personally

Employee Experience – Touch Point #3:

In our series “Employee Experience” we highlight all critical Touch Points of the “Employee Journey”. Today: Letting go of employees.

Layoffs and terminations are drastic experiences in professional life, in both positive and negative terms, and for everyone involved. How appreciative we really treat each other is revealed when we decide to go separate ways. In an interview, Tandemploy co-founder Jana talks about what she learned from past separations, why it can be a good thing to take the departure of employees personally, why a positive employee experience does not necessarily end with the termination and how knowledge transfer can be successful in this special situation.

Dear Jana, let’s be honest: When an employee unexpectedly comes to you and announces that he/she is leaving the company, what is the first thought that comes to your mind and how does it make you feel?

To be honest? If something like that happened unexpectedly, I would primarily blame myself: Why didn’t I see this coming, how could I have missed this person’s dissatisfaction? Fortunately, so far, I have received very few surprising terminations, in fact, terminations (regardless from which side) were almost always preceded by many open discussions. This is actually what I claim to be a “good” termination: it should never come as a surprise, but should always result as a logical consequence of prior honest communication.

 

“I don’t think it is beneficial to grow a thick skin or get too used to termination interviews.”

As a founder and managing director, how do you manage not to take a termination personally?

That’s really difficult! In theory, of course, I understand that there can be many different reasons for termination. And more often than not, the reasons don’t have anything to do with the way the company is run, the culture or the job itself. But sometimes they do, and many things are, at least indirectly, shaped by me. Therefore I think it’s reasonable to reflect the role I played in the events leading up to any termination. Usually, it is clear whether it was simply not (or no longer) a good fit with the role, the location, or any other “external circumstance” – that I don’t take personally at all, because that can happen, even with the best selection processes. But when the reasons stem from our culture or our way of communicating, the least we can do is to take a closer look and derive consequences and improvements from it. In that case, it’s ok (even necessary) to take it personally. I don’t think it is beneficial to grow a thick skin or get too used to termination interviews.

Have you had to let someone go in the course of your professional life and how was that in retrospect? Would you do it differently today?

I’ve had to let go of several employees and I think it is something you never really get used to. I vividly remember the first termination I had to carry out when I was still an employee myself. I found it extremely challenging to prepare for the conversation since I was well aware of the detrimental effect a termination can have on a person. It is almost impossible not to take a termination personally, even if it rarely is, but that’s just human. It has always been my priority – and it still is today – to explain the reasons so well and transparently that the person understands them clearly: It doesn’t mean you’re not a great person with many strengths – it just means that here and now, for this job or company, it wasn’t a perfect fit (anymore).

Conversely: How did your superiors react when you quit from one day to the other, and on top of that along with a colleague, to then found Tandemploy? Were you able to take something away from this experience for your own work as a managing director with HR responsibility?

It was indeed very special and heartfelt: my boss at the time congratulated me and was genuinely happy for me and my decision to found a company. I had laid out my words very carefully and was quite nervous – but I couldn’t have had a better response. Perhaps I really took something from this conversation, namely that I share my joy about new life plans openly and honestly if that’s how I feel – even if, at the same time, I am very sad about leaving.

On the first day at a new company, the first moment when the new colleague comes into the office, that first impression counts. Is this “first impression” also applicable to a layoff interview? What is particularly important here?

Absolutely! First of all, if at all possible, a termination interview should not come as a surprise. This means, that in the best-case scenario, the colleague already knows what to expect in the conversation – and you can get to the point quickly and without rambling on: honest, considerate, and fair. Then you don’t drag out the conversation unnecessarily, because even if it was somehow expected, you might want to be alone and take a deep breath afterward. Therefore I usually quickly offer the colleague to take a walk outside in the fresh air, perhaps with a coworker who they are friends with that can stand by and offer some comfort. Besides that, I always invite the person for a second conversation (a few days later) to give and receive more detailed feedback, to say goodbye, etc. In my opinion, the termination interview itself should be short, lasting a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes – but in the following days, there should always be time for more questions, explanations, feedback, a proper goodbye, and a thank you.

 

“I find it important to structure the company in a way that, from the outset, there are no large pockets of knowledge in the company, and essential things are well documented anyway.”

What does a successful handover look like for you? A mutually beneficial cutting of the cord?

It really depends on how long someone has been in the company, in which area he or she has worked – and consequently how extensive a handover must be. Of course, it is always desirable that information and know-how are passed on in the best possible way. However, I would never count on this to work smoothly in a termination situation. Not because of a possible conflict – but because your (still) colleague is probably already somewhere else with their head. Rather, I find it important to structure the company in a way that, from the outset, there are no large pockets of knowledge in the company, and essential things are well documented anyway. This makes a termination much easier for everyone involved.

How do companies ensure that important knowledge and impulses that an employee has gained and contributed during his time in the company are not lost? And what role can digital tools play here?

This ties in with my previous point: because if an organization is flexible and there is generally a culture in which knowledge is shared and employees learn with and from each other, you have a great advantage here. We document our work very well every day because we simply have to: this is the only way we can work together in a flexible and agile manner, in a wide variety of working models, with a wide variety of hours. Of course, we also benefit from this in phases of transformation – and yes, even if a colleague has to or wants to leave Tandemploy.

Unfortunately, many companies are currently forced to let go of employees. How can they stay connected beyond the professional relationship and help to ensure these employees do not fall into a “hole”?

The corona crisis is presenting many companies with enormous challenges. One measure could be to not dismiss employees too hastily, but to take a closer look at how their experience and skills could possibly be useful in other contexts and areas within the organization. Perhaps continuing education – and here I am not just thinking about traditional continuing education formats, but above all about learning-on-the-job or peer learning – could offer great opportunities to invest in the existing workforce. If there is really no way to avoid layoffs, I think it is important to take the time for open and appreciative discussions and to support the employees as much as possible when looking for a new job. Those who mess up the “last” impression (which doesn’t have to be final, we have very close contact to almost all our alumni!) have not only done something fundamentally wrong in terms of business but, even more importantly, on a human level.

This text is part 4, and thus the last part, of our blog series on “Employee Experience”. Did you miss the first three parts? Then you can read part 1 here, where we get to the bottom of how companies manage to win (and keep) the young Netflixers. In part 2, we focus on the important touchpoint “onboarding” – and why companies only have one chance to do it really well. In the third part, we debunk a few bold theses and look for solutions to how companies can meet the many different needs and life phases of their employees, especially if they employ several hundred or even thousands of people.

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