You don’t have to be a jerk. Experts say this is how you conduct layoffs with kindness

Be kind.
Be kind.
Image: Reuters/Sivaram V
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India’s technology and machine-driven IT services sector is in need of a human(e) touch.

Last week, an audio recording of an employee being callously asked to leave at Tech Mahindra, the IT services arm of the $19 billion Mahindra Group, went viral online, sparking outrage over the insensitive behaviour of the human resources (HR) executive involved. The issue snowballed to such an extent that the chairman of the group, Anand Mahindra, himself took to Twitter to apologise.

This incident was only the latest sign of a growing malaise in India’s $150 billion IT sector, which is rife with sudden layoffs as companies look to cut costs, and basic manual tasks become redundant amidst the rising tide of automation. Employees have complained of insensitive behaviour on the part of their employers, and online mental health counselling firms say there’s been a jump in the number of calls they’ve received from both aspiring and current IT sector workers worried about their jobs.

But while layoffs are bound to happen when sectors go through major technological or economic shifts, there’s a lot that companies can do to ease the blow.

Be considerate

Many Indian companies disregard basic norms, such as giving employees advance notice when it comes to layoffs. And this makes for a completely disorganised process that hits employees hard, according to Shipra Dawar, founder and CEO of ePsyClinic, an online mental health clinic.

“(Employees) are not given ample time to find a new job. One should be considerate that there might be a family that depends on that one person,” she said.

Recent complaints by members of India’s IT unions show that in some cases, companies have given notice of just a couple of hours, or a few days at most. And that’s certainly something that can be avoided.

“…every leader has information beforehand, so the process has to be managed a little more in advance, where the communication needs to start flowing to the people who are going to be impacted,” Dawar added.

Be transparent

During layoffs, the final conversation with the employee also matters.

“Somehow I find that most leaders communicate less, and are also less visible to employees during this time,” Vasanthi Srinivasan, professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, said. “This is because they dread the kind of questions that will be asked of them.”

But when companies are conducting layoffs due to cost pressures, or because certain roles are being eliminated, it’s essential to spell out the reasoning so that employees know they’re not at fault.

“Somewhere the blame shifts on the employee, and that in itself is a bad way of handling (it), but what they don’t realise is that it scars the person for a long time,” Dawar said.

Another issue that companies can easily fix is the way they break the bad news to employees. Instead of doing it over a phone call or email, experts say that having a personal conversation works better, helping employees process the information and feel like they have some support through the transition.

Moreover, the responsibility for layoffs doesn’t have to be relegated to the HR department. Managers who interact with employees more frequently are likely to have a better relationship with them, and can share the bad news more sensitively.

“In fact, the separation of the role of HR and line manager in the case of (a) layoff is the most important decision that an organisation has to take,” Srinivasan added. “This reflects the dignity and respect that is accorded to an employee and the grace with which the employee is exited.” The HR should come in at the point of settling dues and ensuring that the exit process is smooth, she said.

Be kind

Even when an employee is no longer part of a company, there should still be some kind of post-exit support.

“Organisations should provide support to laid-off employees and/or surviving employees to make the transition smooth,” Amit Nandkeolyar, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, explained.

Small gestures such as offering references for other companies or even just enquiring if the person has found a new job will go a long way, both in helping the employee and boosting the company’s reputation among future hires.