(Un)Happy Holidays: A time for cheer and a time for layoffs. Don’t be a Scrooge this season

There's never a good time to announce layoffs, but the holiday season can be especially cruel. Here's some advice on how to soften the blow.

Dr. Mark Goulston returns as a featured writer for WorkingNation. Dr. Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

Mark Goulston, M.D.

You’re the CEO and the holidays are upon you. It can be one of the busiest times of the year.

There are company holiday parties to run and attend and holiday cheer to spread. You are busy preparing for raises, bonuses and promotions to be meted out in the new year.

Sadly, there are the people you have to “let go” because of either downsizing, consolidation, offshoring or they are being replaced by automated technology. These factors aren’t their fault, it can come down to a business decision and it comes down to you to let them know there’s bad news on the horizon this holiday season.

Nobody likes having to relay such news. But CEO’s mostly don’t lack the will to deliver an emotional blow in the form of layoffs, they lack a way to do it that is doable by them. I have some suggestions on how to approach this sensitive topic in a way that is tactful and respectful to all involved parties.

One of the best ways to calm yourself down and take control before you have this conversation is to put yourself in that employee’s shoes –and at their level, not yours– and first ask yourself: “How you would want to be told that you’re being laid off?”

Next, reach out to your HR director to assist you in this difficult task. Bringing in their expertise will not make you appear any less in the eyes of HR, but rather cause them to feel valued about being able to help you. It is important to get their input on the employee and suggestions on how, when and where to have this tough conversation.

But remember, having the conversation is your responsibility.

If you put yourself in that employee’s position you might discover that the first thing that happens to them is a feeling of anxiety that may spiral into panic. Or it causes them to shut down and anything they hear after that could be lost.

When I was a practicing psychiatrist, consulting at UCLA and teaching the oncology residents, I told them that when they tell a patient about their cancer diagnosis (back when cancer news was akin to a death sentence), they may not hear anything after that.

I said to the residents that it’s less important what you tell them –other than the straightforward, calm and direct truth– than what you enable them to tell you. That’s because what is on these patients’ minds may not be what you thought it would be. The same applies to when you tell someone that you’re going to be laying them off.

In the meantime, here are some suggested steps to use. Be clear about what you say including:

  • That you’re going to lay them off on a specific date and time.
  • That the reason you’re doing this is because of ______.
  • That how you came to that decision is ______.
  • That you and HR will do everything you can to make this transition go as smoothly as possible for them.
  • That a part of this transition will be to have HR sit down with them and help them prepare a resume which clearly explains their skillset, responsibilities and duties in a way that draws a future employer’s attention.
  • That your company will help them begin a search for a new employer that is looking for their skills and abilities.
  • After sharing the above with them, ask them, “What questions do you have?”
  • If they need to vent or start to cry, allow them to do so. The more you are ready for this possibility –like allowing an upset adolescent or spouse to verbally express their displeasure– and let them do it, the more you will see it ebb and flow and then dissipate. This will be difficult to do, but it will often enable them to continue the conversation and have a dialogue with you.
  • Once they have finished expressing their emotions, calmly repeat, “Again, what questions do you have?”
  • If you can answer their questions, do so.
  • If you can’t answer their questions, tell them: “These are important questions and I want to get you the best answers which I don’t have. I will reach out to HR (or whoever might have an answer) and get you that answer which our HR director will be communicating with you.”
  • Finish by telling them: “Being told you’re being laid off can come as a shock and there is a good chance that you will come up with additional questions, especially if you speak to your spouse or a family member who might say to you, ‘Did you remember to ask about x, y or z?’ HR will be following up with you to answer those questions after they come up as well.”

There’s good and bad news about being in a leadership position. The bad news is that informing someone they have lost their job will be among the most difficult things you have to do.

The good news is that how well you handle doing it will cause everyone’s respect and esteem –including your own– to go up. In fact, if you handle these situations with aplomb, grace and graciousness, there are few things that will make you take more pride in how you conducted yourself as a leader.

Join the Conversation: Have you had to deliver bad news around the holiday season? How did you approach this subject? Tell us your story on our Facebook page.

Connect with Dr. Goulston through FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. His books are available on Amazon. Check out his videos on YouTube or take advantage of free resources available at

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