Are Layoffs with Compassion Even Possible?


Anyone who has scrolled through LinkedIn recently knows that layoffs are happening en masse, especially in the tech sector. However, finance, media, automotives, and others have also experienced layoffs recently.

Human Resources leaders are on the frontlines. They are part of the decision-making process about who to let go and how to break the news. Many, including HR Exchange Network, have talked about the future of work including empathetic leaders, who conduct layoffs with compassion. It begs the question: Is it even possible to conduct layoffs with compassion?  

What Are Layoffs with Compassion?

Recently, the BBC concluded that the answer is no. In an article about the “myth of the compassionate layoff,” the writer raises the point that the very definition of layoffs means employers are cutting ties and moving on. Oxford Languages defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”

To some extent, most people in HR have a heart and feel sympathy for those who lose their job. Experts are suggesting that “layoffs with compassion” mean that employers reveal the news with some sensitivity. In other words, they do the opposite of, whose CEO infamously let 900 people go in a single Zoom call, during which he simply announced they were unlucky and terminated.

READ: 10 Strategies for Dealing with Layoffs

In addition, however, people now expect employers to provide some sort of support in the aftermath of layoffs. Some sort of severance pay is a given, but people expect more now. In the United States, people lose their health insurance, which is expensive to replace. More employers provide help in getting medical insurance on the way out the door. Many are also providing access to job boards or referrals for the inevitable job search. 

As more people grapple with the extreme class disparity in America, CEOs and other executives are taking pay cuts as they lay off employees. For example, Zoom Founder and CEO Eric Yuan announced he would take a 98% pay cut and forego his 2023 corporate bonus when he recently laid off about 1,300 employees. His base salary for the previous year was $301,731, according to Bloomberg

Certainly, taking such a pay cut is not an empty gesture. It shows that the CEO is taking responsibility for decisions he played a major role in making, which led to these layoffs. Zoom also provided these employees with 16 weeks of severance and medical insurance, according to NPR

Where Do Employers Lose Their Way?

Still, in the end, those who have been let go are without a job and must move on for their livelihood. Many people in Human Resources criticize those who try to compare colleagues to family. The fact of the matter is that an employer can fire people or conduct layoffs, whereas family is forever (or at least it should be).

This conversation about compassionate layoffs brings up similar arguments. Mom is going to hug her child and reassure him that everything is gong to be all right when money is tight. An employer is going to let that child go and let them fend for themselves, even if they provide a handout or two on the way out the door. The relationship between employer and employee is one that is somewhat transactional, and that makes true compassion hard to execute for obvious reasons. 

READ: What Is Empathy in Human Resources?

Often, even if Human Resources wants to take a human-centric approach to layoffs, executives may take a different path. For starters, many recruiters have been among the laid off in recent months. This takes away some of the power HR has in a place. In addition, automation is well known to be part of recruiting and talent acquisition, but it is creeping into the layoffs process, too. 

Numerous publications, including Business Insider, recently covered the subject of artificial intelligence algorithm’s deciding who gets laid off. More than 1 in 3 Human Resources leaders will rely mostly or solely on data to come up with recommendations to reduce labor costs in a 2023 recession, compared to 1 in 5 that will rely mostly or solely on gut instinct, according to a Capterra survey. The scariest finding in this survey:

“Nearly all HR leaders say their department will use software and algorithms to reduce labor costs in a 2023 recession, but only half are completely confident their tech will produce unbiased recommendations.”

Talk about lacking compassion! The fact of the matter is that Human Resources leaders are turning to data more often to make sensitive decisions that can change the course of employees’ lives. That practice does not necessarily sync with the idea of empathetic leadership or conducting layoffs with compassion. 

In the end, individuals will decide if leaders are compassionate when they let them go. Frankly, those who have been laid off will probably find it hard to fairly assess how leadership executed the layoff. After all, they must face a loss of livelihood while confronting the grieving process and a level of unplanned upheaval in their lives. While the debate continues about whether compassionate layoffs are truly a thing, people can at least avoid insensitivity when terminating someone’s employment. 

What do you think? Are layoffs with compassion even possible? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio for Pexels

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