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How to Lay People off Compassionately

By Katherine Gustafson

Could the creators of the movie “Up in the Air” see the future? The 2009 film, in which corporate consultants Ryan (played by George Clooney) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) parachute into companies to execute layoffs, was ahead of its time by about a decade. Natalie, a fresh hire at the firm, pitches a wholesale switch to doing layoffs over video chat — a transition that did in fact come to pass for many workers more than ten years later during the pandemic.

Ryan heads off this threatened change by taking Natalie on a tour of his work firing people face-to-face to demonstrate the need for real human connection. While Ryan is certainly not in touch with his emotions—he lives on the road and avoids emotional entanglements—he understands that there’s a cost to removing human feeling from corporate operations.

While in real life we unfortunately didn’t avoid the transition to video-based layoffs in many cases, it’s comforting to think that the partial switch to this method of bad-news delivery hasn’t robbed the process of its humane sensibility, as Ryan feared it would.

Just the same, the movie has a lot to teach about approaching layoffs with a weather eye on compassion.

What is compassion?

“Compassion is different from what people think it is,” says Suzy DeLine, a marketing expert and compassion advocate who attended Stanford’s Applied Compassion Academy to learn how to help others embrace this perspective. “They think it’s being nice or showing empathy.” But compassion is much more than that. “It’s a choice to notice suffering in yourself and other people and to find the right action to take about it.”

Much of what Stanford’s Academy teaches is based on the work of Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, co-authors of Awakening Compassion at Work, which lays out four steps to doing anything with compassion, including layoffs.

1. Be open to notice suffering.

The first step is simply to stay emotionally present. DeLine notes that many people are resistant to this because it feels scary to acknowledge suffering without knowing the steps to take to “fix” it. But the act of allowing the suffering to exist is healthier for both people.

“Having been laid off three times now in my life, the first reaction is to mentally flee, to not be present for it,” says DeLine. “That may be a short-term heal, but it’s not the right thing to do. Let yourself notice the suffering so you can effectively take next steps.”

2. Choose to notice the feelings.

After you’ve stopped yourself from mentally fleeing, the next step is to take stock of which specific emotions are arising, both in yourself and in the other person. If you’re doing the layoff, you may feel guilty and anxious, while it’s clear the other person feels sad and angry. Noting that these emotions are present helps you remain open and allows for the next step.

3. Interpret the feelings.

When you see another person behaving emotionally, you have a choice in how to interpret what is happening. It can be easy to distance yourself from someone who is yelling or sobbing by thinking “this person is reacting irrationally” or “this person is weak.” But you can make a different choice, embracing a more sympathetic narrative such as “this person is reacting emotionally because this mattered to them.” Making the positive assumption in each case will allow you to keep ahold of compassion and take action that will best support them.

4. Take action. 

It is not your goal to eradicate the suffering. It hurts to get laid off, and there’s no way to avoid that. Instead, your goal should be to offer the person whatever you can from a place of honest awareness and positive interpretation. In laying someone off, you might share that you are sad or regretful about having to do the lay-off and provide them resources and supports, such as information about processes and benefits and an offer to help organize referrals and references from colleagues.

For people not used to thinking in feeling-oriented terms — typical in corporate environments — all this may seem fluffy or inconsequential. But these issues matter in a material way. A Gallup survey showed that employees who feel that their supervisor cares about them are more likely to be creative, advocate for their company, support their coworkers, and pursue sustainable work-life balance. And Binghamton University researchers found that managers who approach their jobs with compassion elicit better performance from their workers.

"Employees who feel that their supervisor cares about them are more likely to be creative, advocate for their company, support their coworkers, and pursue sustainable work-life balance."

“I have a lot of friends who roll their eyes at the words ‘compassion’ and ‘suffering,’” says DeLine. She herself wondered if the eye-rollers were correct to devalue these ideas. “I had thought that work was a world in a glass case where it wasn’t efficient or practical to care about such ideas.”

But when she reflected on the workplaces where she had felt happiest and most productive, she realized the major difference a culture of compassion and support really does make.

“When I have been in healthy and compassionate situations, they really were the best workplaces,” she says. “We really did do amazing stuff. It really did matter.”

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About Katherine Gustafson

Katie Gustafson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, focusing on content writing for business, tech, finance, and nonprofits.

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