The Downsized Diva’s Guide to Layoff Etiquette

November 20th, 2008

The layoff process is awkward and uncomfortable for everybody. Yes, it’s probably most excruciating for those who have to pack up their files and turn in their key cards. But it’s no picnic for the managers breaking the bad news or the “spared” coworkers skulking around in the background.

And many times, clueless or insensitive remarks or behavior can make the situation much worse.  I know this from personal experience (hence my new self-proclaimed nickname, “The Downsized Diva”). I was laid off twice, forced to deliver bad layoff news to others repeatedly, and managed to cling to my job through more layoff purges than I can count. I have also heard dozens of layoff horror stories from my clients, friends, and colleagues.

All of this horrible experience has helped me to identify some layoff etiquette tips that can make the whole ugly situation a little bit less painful for everybody.

For The Laid-Off

Okay, so you are understandably upset and angry.  You probably don’t care about etiquette or making life easier for your boss or co-workers right now.  However, if you’re able to remain calm and polite (just until you get out of the building…then you can drink tequila and curse your boss’ ancestors freely), you can make the best of a bad situation.

  • Don’t make it personal. Don’t take the layoff personally and don’t hurl personal insults at the boss delivering the bad news. Your manager probably isn’t happy about laying you off and, in the long run, you’ll benefit more from his glowing recommendation than that brief moment of satisfaction from telling him off.
  • Politely ask for what you want. If you can keep the layoff discussion reasonably civil, you stand a much better chance of getting what you want from your boss. She may not have the power to negotiate on the terms of the severance agreement, but she can provide a recommendation, job leads, or just some extra time to pack up your belongings and access your computer files.
  • Don’t badmouth the company or your boss. Save your trash talk for your close friends and family. Let your managers and colleagues see you as a class act and a true professional (even if you’re silently wishing them bodily harm). They will be much more likely to think of you when a job lead or opportunity comes up.

For The Manager Laying Off

  • Break the news in a considerate way. If you can, deliver the bad news one-on-one before your employee has to hear about their impending unemployment from the office gossip. Even worse: Learning that you’ve been downsized when your key card or computer password mysteriously stops working. Wimpy managers put off the layoff discussion because they know it will be unpleasant. Think about how you would want to be treated in the same situation and act accordingly (within the rules set by your HR department, of course).
  • Show respect. You are not a superior human being just because you happen to be sitting on the powerful side of the desk in this layoff conversation. In some cases, you may be downsizing someone more competent and qualified than you are.  Either way, your employee deserves respect and compassion during this very difficult conversation.
  • Don’t expect any sympathy. This isn’t about you. The person you’re laying off is not going to shed any tears about the stress you’re feeling right now, so don’t even think about asking for pity (and yes, this happens a lot).

For The Colleagues Who Escaped the Layoff Axe

  • Be sympathetic, but not too sympathetic. Do express your regrets and offer encouraging words. Don’t act like your colleague’s world is ending. Everyone appreciates a little empathy, but most people don’t want (or need) your pity.
  • Offer your help and support. For departing colleagues that you like and respect, make it clear that you can be counted upon for contacts, advice, and a sympathetic ear. Go out of your way to forward  appropriate job leads whenever you see them.
  • Stay in touch. Don’t wait around for your favorite ex-colleagues to call you and ask for help. Email to check in regularly. Do NOT start every conversation with, “So, have you found a new job yet?” That just creates added pressure and leads to awkward conversations. Eventually, your former friends will start avoiding you simply to avoid that question.
  • Throw a great goodbye party. Take your downsized pal out for a night of fun and be sure to pick up the tab. Invite the rest of the department or make it a party of two (let your ex-colleague decide which is most appropriate).

Other thoughts on layoff etiquette? Examples of bad layoff behavior? I want to read them.

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Marilyn Diaz

Great article Pam! Very important to not bad-mouth if you’ve been laid off. You never know how things might turn out later.


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