Years ago when I got laid off, my manager started the conversation by saying, "This is really hard for me."

Ugh. If it was hard for him, how hard was it for me? I was the one out of a job. (When you lay an employee off, or fire them, or discipline them...never imply they should feel your pain.)

"I'm sorry to have to do this," he continued. "But please don't be angry with me. The decision came from above. And honestly I'm not sure how they decided which people to lay off. I'm just the messenger."

What he said next didn't make me feel better, either. It made me feel worse. Only a handful of people were being laid off. Why me? And shouldn't the person who made the decision -- or at least a person who played a role in the decision -- be the one to tell me?

That's how Henry Ward, the CEO of Carta, handled the company's recent layoff of 161 people. Social distancing made in-person layoffs impossible, so he made the announcement via teleconference.

First, Ward laid out the decision-making process. Department heads were told to use the following criteria to meet the headcount reduction target:

  • First, employees whose role or job function is being eliminated under new (significantly lower) growth projections.
  • Second, employees who were on a performance improvement plan, or at risk of being placed on a performance improvement plan in the near future.
  • Then, if necessary, ask yourself, "If we had to let go of one more person, who would it be?" until headcount numbers were met.

According to Ward, most came from the first group, a handful from the second, and "a little more than a handful" from the third. (Which makes sense: Successful companies typically don't have a high percentage of people on performance improvement plans.)

Even so, understanding a process doesn't ensure you're happy the results of a process. So what Ward said next was key:

Once the lists were created, they were sent to me for approval. It is important that all of you know I personally reviewed every list and every person. If you are one of those affected it is because I decided it. Your manager did not. For the majority of you it was quite the contrary. Your manager fought to keep you and I overrode them. They are blameless. If today is your last day, there is only one person to blame and it is me.

As Adam Grant says:

The Carta layoffs involved 16 percent of its total workforce, a significant number.

But no matter how big the company, nor how few the people involved, job layoffs always affect every employee who remains. They talk: About whom. About why. About how.

And they wonder if they might be next. 

No matter how many layers removed you may be, you owe it to your employees to play a part in the decision and the announcement.

If you have the authority to take away a person's job, you should feel the responsibility to tell them.