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Layoffs, Empathy, and Mastering the Art of the Soft Landing

4 minute read | April 5, 2023

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If you think the wave of corporate downsizing is reaching epidemic proportions, you just might be right. In many industries, especially the tech sector, each passing day brings news of budget cuts, hiring freezes, and the most devastating of all measures, layoffs.

When news of these activities rolls out at such a brisk pace, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers: five thousand here, seven thousand there. X percent cuts to this or that department. It all sounds very business as usual.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the folks who find themselves on the wrong side of that spreadsheet.

It’s critical to recognize that behind each of those numbers is an individual (and, in many instances, a family) that will be impacted. And in a day and age when employers are increasingly judged by non-financial standards—such as Environmental, Social, Corporate Governance (ESG) and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) efforts—employers are beginning to discover that simply terminating employees with a bare minimum severance package and a generic letter of recommendation simply isn’t enough anymore.

A recent article from Fast Company highlights a growing “trust gap” that’s forming between executives, employees, and consumers. Citing a recent PwC study, the article explains that each of those three parties has a different opinion of what constitutes a “trust-damaging” event:

  • Executives believe trust is damaged when negative news about the company makes headlines (such as security breaches and compliance violations)
  • Consumers state trust is damaged by experiencing poor customer service
  • Employees cite bias and mistreatment as trust-breakers, causing more than half of respondents to leave their company once that trust is broken

Trust becomes a particularly thorny issue when it comes to layoffs.

There are undoubtedly times when a layoff becomes inevitable, and trimming payroll expenses will ensure the business—and those employees who were not directly impacted by layoffs—can survive challenging economic headwinds. However, those who are left behind in such instances inevitably feel the impact to one degree or another.

Layoffs often force individuals who remain in the workforce to absorb the workload of colleagues who lost their jobs. New terms such as “quiet hiring” attempt to put a positive spin on the phenomenon, but as a recent MSNBC segment highlights, this can lead to employees feeling undervalued, and underappreciated, and can ultimately lead to burnout and—you guessed it—damaged trust. Not a winning long-term proposition for employee satisfaction or maintaining a positive employer brand.

Employees who remain at a company after a layoff event can also feel exposed, wondering if they’ll be part of the next wave of terminations. This not only damages morale and productivity, but top performers might be more compelled to take that recruiter call, spruce up their resume, and seek employment elsewhere.

Additionally, many large employers find they’re in the unique position of eliminating jobs in one part of their business while simultaneously experiencing a skills gap in other areas. During the pandemic, for example, organizations that have both an online and brick-and-mortar presence experienced a dramatic shift in skills required to meet increasing digital demand. As COVID concerns continue to ease and as a challenging economy begins to impact consumer spending, the nature of those most in-demand roles has flipped, and employers are struggling to catch up.

So, if you’re an employer, how do you navigate these rapidly-changing conditions in a way that benefits the business, maintains trust with the employee base, and minimizes any negative implications for the brand?

It all comes down to communication, transparency, and empathy.

The PwC Trust survey highlights that “encouraging managers to increase communications with remaining team members” tops the list of actions employers can do to build trust during layoffs, followed closely by “being more transparent about the reasons for layoffs.” Both of these approaches serve to minimize the internal chatter and “here’s what I heard” gossip that’s inevitable after such events and replaces it with direct and unambiguous information.

Another trust-building opportunity highlighted in the survey—offering generous severance payouts— empowers companies to act creatively and empathetically to those employees who were laid off.

Of course, a strong financial severance package helps to close the income gap for individuals who find themselves unexpectedly seeking new employment. But offering benefits such as access to reskilling or upskilling programs can help those workers to become more marketable and more attractive to future employers.

Springboard recently created a Career Reboot Scholarship program to help workers impacted by layoffs. This program will commit up to $1 million in scholarship funding to eligible workers through 2024, but if you’re an employer that is in the process of trimming payroll, Springboard for Business can help you to extend these programs to current and recently laid-off employees alike. Curricula include programs focused on data science, analytics, cybersecurity, coding, and other in-demand skills, helping workers to become more marketable and adding even greater value to the organizations they support.

This, when paired with extending outplacement services to employees who are laid off (a benefit also cited by PwC survey participants), can highlight that the employer understands and empathizes with those individuals impacted by the changing market conditions and is actively investing in their well-being. Once those new skills are acquired, the employer could even redeploy that individual in another part of the business.

Layoffs are never pleasant, but employers have to play the long game if they want to thrive once economic and employment conditions improve. Infusing the process with empathy and humanity ensures that both those remaining workers and future new hires view the company in a positive light.

Since you’re here…
Springboard for Business grows businesses by empowering leaders and their teams with the critical thinking, data, and technology skills central to the future of work. Companies like Amazon, Walmart, HP, JPMorgan Chase, and Visa have partnered with Springboard for Business to upskill and reskill employees around the world. Click here to learn more.

About Marc A. Moschetto

Marc is a B2B technology marketing executive, with nearly 30 years of global experience and Cloud/SaaS-based solution domain expertise. He's spent decades working within the HR technology sector, including holding senior marketing roles at WorkForce Software, Workscape (now ADP), Workbrain (now Infor) and PeopleFluent. Marc has also held senior marketing roles with large global organizations such as General Electric and Schneider Electric, and has built and managed teams throughout North America, Europe, APAC, and the Middle East.