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Avoiding the Bad Viral Layoff

By February 14, 2024March 19th, 2024No Comments

If you’ve spent any time reading the news online in the last few years, you’ve probably come across a story or two of a layoff gone wrong. It’s becoming alarmingly common to see an account or video of a job layoff going viral, which indicates a major change in the way these kinds of things are viewed and a shift in employee expectations when it comes to layoffs. Social media plays a key role, as it allows employees to commiserate and share these stories, which has led to a growing public awareness of what was once viewed as a private and potentially embarrassing personal issue. The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic also removed some of the stigma of layoffs, as they became much more common and more openly discussed and normalized.

While organizations like yours have taken notice and are now concerned about being in the news for a mishandled layoff, it’s important that you not just work to avoid public attention but to ensure that you are handling these situations professionally. Even if a bad layoff policy doesn’t go viral, it can still damage your reputation, cause internal morale issues, and put you in a difficult position to succeed long-term. Here are some of the ways you can write a professional and empathetic layoff policy and strategy:

Double down on preparation and training

Layoffs can happen for any number of reasons — changing priorities, issues with funding, seasonality, and many others. However, you should work out internal guidelines and training for your HR team and managers to be prepared for layoffs, no matter what the circumstances. Because these are uncomfortable conversations even in the best circumstances, training and resourcing those responsible will help them feel able to answer questions, offer guidance, and conduct themselves in a way that befits the seriousness of the situation.

Emphasize empathy and encourage listening

Another key step you can take is to ensure that anyone conducting layoffs appreciates what they mean and the importance of empathy. A layoff can mean some major life changes, often difficult ones, for the person affected, and your layoff team should understand and appreciate what this means. Empathy means speaking genuinely and candidly and giving everyone affected a chance to be heard and feel appreciated for their work. While it won’t make up for the difficulty of the layoff, it can help laid-off team members value their time at your organization and move forward confident in the importance of their contributions.

Transparency and honesty over speed and efficiency

Quite often, a badly handled layoff is not the result of malice or organizational complacency but of a rushed or broken process. Think of stories you might have heard of people accidentally learning they were getting laid off because they were suddenly locked out of their email or having a layoff meeting with a consultant they had never met before. While there is some value in speed and efficiency, you should always think of the ways these kinds of errors can affect your organization’s reputation and morale, not to mention leaving laid-off employees confused or resentful.

Another common mistake is pressuring laid-off employees to sign severance packages and other agreements before they have had the chance to look at them with a clear head. Because layoff meetings can be highly emotionally charged, putting excessive pressure on someone to fill out paperwork can feel coercive, even if the intent is to simply move through the process as quickly as possible. Because many employees are already mistrustful of HR, this can lead to a difficult and adversarial conversation, which benefits no one. Instead, plan to budget time for consideration and discussion, and do not ‘lean’ on laid-off employees during the meeting or make them feel rushed.

Layoffs sometimes mean letting go of valued team members who have done outstanding work, and you should explain as clearly as possible why this step is being taken. While you shouldn’t overpromise, you should also do as much as you can to offer them support and information about unemployment, future job prospects, and professional references. Taking the time to have these conversations, ensuring they are led by someone the employee is familiar with, and doing what you can to show appreciation for their efforts will take some of the sting out of the conversation.

Plan for difficult internal conversations

Layoffs don’t just affect laid-off employees or teams — they can have an organization-wide impact. Some studies that track employee productivity show that as much as 75% of an organization can experience a downturn in productivity following layoffs. The reasons for this are many and include feelings of uncertainty and fear around organizational stability, a loss of faith in management, confusion about priorities, and difficulty dealing with shuffled organizational goals. As much as you need to plan to gracefully and empathetically lay off staff, you also need to turn inward and address the remaining staff about the what and why of your decision.

Being transparent and consistent about the reasons are key, as it is highly likely that current staff members will be in communication with those laid off, and differences in messaging can lead to doubt or mistrust. You also need to show appreciation for the work of current and former employees and to emphasize that the difficult decision is for the best long-term. However, this is not a time for platitudes or telling the remaining team members they shouldn’t worry. It’s far better to acknowledge that these moments are extraordinarily difficult, and that fear or anxiety is understandable, and to offer a listening ear to anyone who feels they need to vent or discuss any concerns.

Get organizational expertise from a team who has been there before

The team at 501(c) Services is composed of dedicated nonprofit professionals with years of experience. We’ve been through these rocky periods, and we’re ready to help you navigate any issues that may come up. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help your organization survive and thrive, please get in touch with us.


For more than 40 years, 501(c) Services has been a leader in offering solutions for unemployment costs, claims management, and HR support to nonprofit organizations. Two of our most popular programs are the 501(c) Agencies Trust and 501(c) HR Services. We understand the importance of compliance and accuracy, and we are committed to providing our clients with customized plans that fit their needs.

Contact us today to see if your organization could benefit from our services.

Already working with us and need assistance with an HR or unemployment issue? Contact us here.

(Photos by Erik Lucatero and

The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.

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