Anger, Silence, Denial, Threats: How to Handle Emotional Reactions During a Layoff

HR, Outplacement

This blog post is the third in our blog series dedicated to the best practices in performing a reduction in staff. Download the Complete Guide: How to Conduct a Layoff Notification Meeting >>

Joyce Domijan

Joyce Domijan, VP of Strategy and Program Development for CareerArc has over twenty years of broad and successful human resource, training, and career development experience.  She is an experienced career coach, resume writer and leadership development trainer who has created and conducted programs for thousands of professionals.

Please refer to these tips as guidelines and best practices, and be sure to consult with existing protocols and legal counsel.

handle emotional employees layoffs

Employees can experience a range of emotions when hearing news of their termination or layoff, and it is very difficult to predict how each employee will react to the news.

If emotional reactions do arise, here are pointers on how to respond to the most common reactions so you can stay in control of the meeting, and of your own emotions, throughout the layoff notification process.

Be prepared for the following reactions:

  • If crying occurs:
    • Offer tissue.
    • Permit the employee the time to be alone, if needed.
    • Be supportive, but refrain from touching the employee.
    • Be patient.
  • If anger occurs:
    • Listen. Anger is a normal response.
    • Respond to verbal attacks patiently but directly.
    • Remain calm, and request the employee to remain calm.
    • Do not discuss employee performance issues.
    • Stop the meeting until the anger ceases, and reconvene at a later time.
  • If silence occurs:
    • Acknowledge the employee’s feelings.
    • Allow the employee to discuss feelings and be empathetic.
    • Ask open-ended questions to determine that the employee understands the layoff message.
  • If denial occurs:
    • Repeat or rephrase statements.
    • Ask open-ended questions to determine whether the employee understands the layoff message.
    • Empathize with the employee with statements such as, “I know this is quite a shock,” or, “This is really hard to understand at first.”
    • Give the employee direction on what he or she needs to do.
  • If threats occur:
    • Don’t put yourself between the employee and the door—give them easy access to leave at all times.
    • Keep calm, take a deep breath and do not get baited into an argument.
    • Suggest a brief cool down period; pause and then reconvene when you feel that emotions have calmed.
    • ‘Try to anticipate those employees that might have a more adverse reaction. Include an HR rep or security officer in the notification meeting as needed, and plan the meeting in a time and place that will minimize the impact on other employees (end of day, away from areas where employees meet or congregate, etc.).
    • If you or anyone else feels physically threatened, get help immediately. Review security options and safety protocols ahead of time.

How to Answer the Most Difficult Question: “Why?”

In addition to physical reactions such as crying, anger, and nonacceptance, emotional responses may also come in the form of a question, the hardest to answer being, “Why?” 

“Why me?”

  • “Why not another employee?”
  • “Why did you make this decision?”

Other questions may include:

  • Who made this decision?
  • Who can I talk with to get this decision reversed?
  • Are there any other jobs available for me?
  • Can I keep my job if I take a pay cut or reduce my time?
  • Who else is being released?

80% Preparation, 20% Execution: Set Yourself Up for Success

Most of the work you will put in to ensure a successful layoff notification meeting will be done prior to the actual meeting, where 80% of the outcome will rely on how well you have prepared, and 20% on how you execute your plan with the employee. Execution includes what you do but also how present you are with the employee and how actively and intuitively you listen and respond to questions.

Be familiar with, and comment on, how the decision was made, and allow yourself to be supportive and offer positive suggestions where appropriate. Knowing which questions you can and should answer, and which you cannot and should not address, is the key to addressing difficult questions behind a termination decision. This could vary widely across companies, which is why we recommend speaking with your HR department as well as other supervisors for guidance on which questions are within your scope, and which will breach that boundary. Once you have a collective understanding of which questions to address, start rehearsing answers to the questions above out loud.

One technique that will aid in addressing difficult questions is in composing and delivering a clear, concise notification message at the top of the meeting. This will allow you to anchor your responses to points you have already stated, providing you with something to refer to if questions do arise.

For example, if the employee asks for specific details about how the decision was made, but you and your team had determined those questions went beyond the scope of what should be discussed, then referencing or repeating what you laid out at the start of the meeting could suffice:

Employee: Who made this decision? Who can I talk with to get this decision reversed?

Manager: As I mentioned at the beginning of this meeting, this decision was made after a long and careful review of the options, realizing that many good people would be affected. This has been a very difficult decision and was not easily, nor hastily made. I want you to know that it has been reviewed at the highest levels within the company and it is a final decision.

When these questions come up, how you listen is as important as how you respond. Allow the employee to finish the entire question or statement, and know that the question may just be the start of a longer comment or series of questions.

Refrain from interrupting the employee or reacting defensively. We recommend taking the time to pause before each response so you show that you are truly listening to their concerns but also to ensure you answer the question, and only the question asked. The stress of the moment can impact your focus and push you to react in haste. Taking a pause helps keep your responses focused, and prevents you from mistakenly expanding into topics that could prompt more questions.

Resist the Need to Comfort with a Cliché

Lastly, show empathy for the employee but avoid platitudes such as:

“It’s not the end of the world.”

“Consider this a blessing in disguise.”

“The glass isn’t half empty, it’s half full.”

“It’s just a job.”

It is natural to want to assist someone in a trying moment, to relieve someone’s pain, or ease a loss. However, these words, although delivered with the best intent, only seem to diminish the importance of the employee’s emotions and rob them of the right to experience the loss.

Often the best response you can give is the one that delivers closure and one you know to be true: “This was a difficult decision, one not made easily, nor quickly. But it is a final decision, one we know is affecting many good people.”

Read the next post in this blog series: How to Lay Off Employees: A Scripted Guide on What, and What NOT, to Say >>

Additional Resources:

How to Handle Employees' Emotional Reactions During Layoffs
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How to Handle Employees' Emotional Reactions During Layoffs
Employees can resort to an array of emotional reactions during layoffs. Learn how to stay in control of the meeting, and which reactions to prepare for.
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