Conducting Layoffs: ’Necessary Evils’ at Work

"The core challenge for everyone who performs necessary evils comes from having to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: be compassionate and be direct," say Joshua D. Margolis of Harvard Business School and Andrew L. Molinsky of Brandeis University International Business School. Their research sheds light on best practices—typically overlooked—for the well-being of those who carry out these emotionally difficult tasks. Q&A Key concepts include:
  • Most managers who conduct layoffs feel a mix of emotions that may catch them by surprise: sympathy, sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety, and perhaps anger.
  • Best practice for managers includes understanding yourself and recognizing your limitations. Recognize ahead of time the emotional cocktail that you will likely experience when performing a layoff, say the researchers.
  • Companies should focus not only on getting the task done and on ensuring the well-being of victims, but also on the well-being of those who perform the layoff.
  • Conduct training beforehand; have pairs or teams perform the tasks together; provide a good physical environment in a nonpublic, quiet area of the organization; and later allow those who carried out the layoffs to decompress and debrief.
by Martha Lagace

In this uncertain economic climate, downsizing and layoffs are a sadly frequent occurrence. Although bad news is always painful to deliver and to hear, the process of conducting "necessary evils"—such as layoffs or firings—can be managed in a way that is clear yet respectful. It can also be handled in a way that allows for the emotional cauldron that people experience when they are the ones who actually carry out these tasks. According to research by Joshua D. Margolis of HBS and Andrew Molinsky of Brandeis, the emotions and preparation of the person performing a necessary evil are crucial to the subsequent response of those on the receiving end.

"We define a necessary evil as a work-related task that requires a person to cause physical, emotional, or material harm to another human being in order to advance a perceived greater good," say Margolis and Molinsky.

“We identified four different approaches people used to perform necessary evils effectively, so that the task got done and the victims were treated with decency and respect.”

Margolis, an associate professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at HBS, and Molinsky, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University International Business School, have described their work in two papers: "The Emotional Tightrope of Downsizing: Hidden Challenges for Leaders and their Organizations," in the journal Organizational Dynamics, and "Navigating the Bind of Necessary Evils: Psychological Engagement and the Production of Interpersonally Sensitive Behavior," in the Academy of Management Journal.

The researchers joined forces and shared their insights on this tricky topic in an e-mail Q&A with HBS Working Knowledge.

Martha Lagace: Why did you focus on those people who carry out "necessary evils" in the workplace?

Joshua Margolis and Andrew Molinsky: We became interested in necessary evils because students in our undergraduate, MBA, and executive education classes were being called upon to do these tasks and found them so difficult that they often failed to perform them effectively.

When we turned to the academic research, we found a fair amount of research on what victims need when they're on the receiving end. But little attention had been devoted to the challenges faced by those who must perform these tasks. We really wanted to understand their experience so that we could help people equip themselves to get these crucial tasks done effectively and compassionately.

Q: How did you conduct this research? What are your main findings?

A: In our study, we interviewed over 100 professionals in four different occupations—management, medicine, law enforcement, and addiction counseling—and noticed three surprising patterns that cut across all four occupations.

First, in contrast to the stereotypical image of an emotionally numb performer callously or robotically executing a necessary evil, we found that most people in our study experienced an intense mix of emotions when performing these tasks. These emotions included sympathy, sadness, guilt, shame, anxiety, and even anger at times.

A second unanticipated pattern emerged in our data: Many people remained psychologically engaged with these emotions throughout the performance of the task, acutely aware of the pain experienced by those on the receiving end of their actions. This finding was surprising to us in light of previous research, which has emphasized how people distance themselves from their emotions when causing pain or harm.

Finally, as we analyzed our data, we were struck by the resourcefulness and creativity of the managers, doctors, police officers, and addiction counselors whom we interviewed. Necessary evils are often done under difficult conditions, with lots of unpredictable twists and turns—in how the victim will react, for example. Rather than simply following an automated routine, many people in our study would often tailor their conduct toward the victim in ways that reflected the specific challenges of the situation or the needs of the victim. They frequently had to improvise.

“Stress relief and learning are the two key components for taking care of yourself after performing a necessary evil.”

It is important to note, however, that we did not gather data about outcomes in this study, so we cannot conclude that any particular method of handling the task resulted in better or worse outcomes for performers or for those on the receiving end. However, our data do suggest a high level of psychological engagement that we did not anticipate based on conventional wisdom and our reading of prior academic literature.

When we put these patterns together and analyzed our data systematically, we found that people were more likely to customize their treatment of victims when they were able to stay connected with their own emotional experience. Our conclusion, however, is that this approach is not for everyone. In fact, we identified four different approaches people used to perform necessary evils effectively, so that the task got done and the victims were treated with decency and respect.

For those who have to perform necessary evils, this suggests that best practice means, first, understanding yourself and recognizing your limitations. As we learned in our study, some people are able to remain connected to intense emotions and improvise as the situation unfolds, customizing the way in which they treat those on the receiving end of their actions. For these individuals, following a scripted response to the situation might feel like a burden. It could also constrain their ability to improvise effectively. In contrast, a scripted response to a necessary evil is a critical resource for someone who is unable to manage his or her emotional reactions and who would become overwhelmed without a routine.

Organizations often prepare managers through role-playing and by equipping them with scripts, all of which help. But it is equally important for managers to prepare for the spark of emotion they will experience during the actual situation. Therefore, for everyone who must perform a necessary evil, best practice entails understanding ahead of time the emotional cocktail that you will likely experience as well as recognizing the potential impact those emotions will have on your conduct during a layoff.

It is also helpful to devise methods for managing yourself under such intense emotion: for example, asking yourself, "When I feel the heat of the situation, how will I coach myself?" Taking this added step can enable you to complete the task proficiently and respond constructively to the needs of those on the receiving end.

Q: At a company level, did you find best practices around necessary evils?

A: For companies, best practice means focusing not only on getting the task done and ensuring the well-being of victims, but also on the well-being of those who perform the necessary evils. In addition to the typical training that many companies run for managers, and the individual preparation managers do on their own before performing a layoff, we found three practices to be common across multiple types of necessary evils:

  • Have pairs or teams perform these tasks together.
  • Create ample time and space after these tasks for people to decompress and debrief.
  • Provide the right physical environment—a quiet, private area for delivering layoff news.

Q: Did emotions change whether people delivering the bad news were performing a layoff or firing someone?

A: In general, we found very few people who welcomed these tasks, but a few did feel that they were best equipped to take on the responsibility because of their experience—both performing layoffs and being laid off. These managers felt they understood the magnitude of the responsibility—that the health and welfare of the company and the victims rested on their shoulders—and were ready to take on that responsibility.

A common question that gets debated is whether it is harder to lay someone off because of economic conditions or to fire someone because of poor job performance. We did not find any clear patterns, but we did find strong opinions. Some managers expressed the view that because layoff victims' own performance was not responsible for their fate, delivering the news did not amount to a negative judgment of the victim. Therefore, they felt that layoffs were not as difficult as firing someone, where the decision involves a verdict on a person with whom you've worked, often quite closely.

“No matter how dire the company's economic state or how poorly the employee performed, all human beings want to be respected for the effort they have devoted to the company, and they want to leave with their dignity intact.”

But other managers felt just the opposite. Precisely because layoff victims did nothing to warrant their fate, that news was harder for some in our study to deliver than firing someone for poor performance. Direct reports had to be let go through no fault of their own, and for some managers that felt worse.

Overall, whether firing someone or laying someone off, the typical experience is captured in what one experienced manager told us: "The day it doesn't bother you is the day you need to leave your job." But people adopted different approaches for getting that job done. Some remained connected to their emotions, whereas others set their emotions aside until after they had delivered the news.

Q: Who are the best personnel in a company to conduct layoffs? How should they prepare?

A: We do not believe there are better or worse people to perform these tasks. And much like the debate about which is harder, a layoff or a firing, we found that some people preferred to have a personal relationship with the victim, whereas others found those the hardest layoffs to perform. In our study, a key difference lay in the challenges faced by novices and veterans.

The core challenge for everyone who performs necessary evils comes from having to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: be compassionate and be direct. Those being laid off want to sense that the person giving them the news is empathic and caring. However, the message must also be delivered in a clear and direct way. In an effort to be compassionate, and out of a desire not to appear hard-hearted, it is all too easy to try to sugarcoat the message or to ease into it. But that simply confuses victims and prolongs the process. So doers must actually behave in ways that can feel contradictory, at once delivering a clear, concise, and direct message while providing the time, support, caring touch, and assistance necessary to help the victim digest the message and begin the process of moving forward.

Novices sometimes veer to one extreme or the other, delivering the hard news without the compassion, perhaps to demonstrate their toughness or ability to handle the task, or succumbing to a burst of sympathy that causes them to cushion and obfuscate the message. Veterans, on the other hand, need to be careful not to become too routinized in how they deliver the message or in how they express care and concern. Ideally, personnel should be chosen who are able to strike a balance between these two extremes. We also believe that companies can train people to learn how to achieve this balance.

In terms of preparing beforehand, we found that it was essential for equipping those who perform necessary evils with the ability and tools to handle the task effectively. Preparing ahead of time gives performers a realistic preview of the experience they are about to encounter. This enables them to develop strategies for managing their own emotions, as well as those of the people on the receiving end, in order to facilitate successful task performance.

Watching others, role-playing with a colleague, doing a dry-run in front of a mirror or with a recording device, and even getting accustomed to the setting where the news will be delivered all help managers develop and internalize the way they will perform these tasks. These different forms of practicing enable them to develop and begin to customize their own way of handling a layoff.

Finally, as part of this preparation, managers should figure out what they will do after the task. Building in a process for releasing stress and reviewing task performance helps managers at any level of experience to learn, to improve, and to move on to subsequent tasks. Some companies have formal meetings at the end of each day in a layoff procedure, so that those delivering the news can find comfort in debriefing the experience. Some managers find these helpful, while others prefer time alone to reflect or to do physical exercise. Stress relief and learning, though, are the two key components for taking care of yourself after performing a necessary evil.

Q: What are the main risks to avoid? And what defines success?

A: There are three main risks people who perform necessary evils should avoid:

The first risk is going in unprepared. These tasks may seem simple, but it is quite complex telling people they are being let go in a way that they can hear. Many managers believe they can easily handle these tasks because they have performed them before. However, each layoff is unique, and although it is tempting for managers to believe they can walk in, improvise, and adjust on the fly, preparation is critical for understanding the specifics of a case and for handling the potential emotional onslaught: for example, prepare what you plan to say, how you will manage your own emotions, how you will treat the victim, how he or she may react, and how to outfit the setting. The aim is not to become a robot sticking to that script. The aim is by doing a run-through of what to expect, managers can be better poised to handle whatever comes their way—especially the victim's reaction and their own reaction—when they are in the thick of executing the task.

A second risk is failing to achieve the delicate balance of compassion and directness that is required to handle these tasks effectively. A manager can easily become overwhelmed by emotion and erupt in anger when challenged in the meeting, or even break down in tears. Participants in our study related examples of each of these missteps. Managers can also fall off the other side of the emotional balance beam, becoming overly rigid, scripted, and automated in their conduct, and victims can walk out feeling mistreated. No matter how dire the company's economic state or how poorly the employee performed, all human beings want to be respected for the effort they have devoted to the company, and they want to leave with their dignity intact. It is not easy to make them feel appropriately treated, while still making sure the news is delivered clearly. It means striking a chord that is simultaneously firm, direct, compassionate, and respectful. That is exactly the challenge of necessary evils.

The third risk is neglecting one's own well-being. These are hard, demanding tasks that take a toll on the most experienced managers—even those who have done it multiple times before. To believe that one can simply set emotions aside because that is what "good" managers do is unrealistic. Instead, we found that successful managers are able to channel heartfelt emotion into gestures that victims appreciate (such as following up with them afterward), and to find ways to restore themselves, physically and psychologically, following the completion of the task.

Our research suggests three criteria of success:

  1. The task actually gets done. In the case of layoffs, this means that the victim grasps the message (for example, that today is his or her last day of work) and knows the process to follow.
  2. The victim feels that he/she has been treated in a way that respects his/her dignity and—as important—lays the groundwork to allow him/her to rebound and move on in a constructive way.
  3. Typically overlooked is that the task must be done in a way that enables the manager performing the deed to sustain his/her own well-being, ongoing effectiveness, and moral sensitivity.

The task does not magically get done. There is a person who needs to do it, and it is that person whose conduct will determine whether the victim feels respected and cared for. Our research reveals that getting the task done and treating victims in the appropriate way is taxing. It can burn people out or cause them to become callous to the experience. Neither is a good outcome. Success means attending to the performer's well-being, so that he or she can continue to function effectively in the role, which likely will be even more demanding after the layoff.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: We are each broadening our focus to understand how people can get other essential but taxing managerial tasks accomplished.

Joshua is currently working on research designed to help managers and executives handle complex ethical tasks in organizational settings. For example, people often hesitate to raise sensitive ethical issues because of how their concerns will be received. So how can a person do so effectively in ways that will enable others to listen and that will mobilize them to respond constructively?

Andy is currently working on helping people cope with the challenges of psychologically demanding tasks in a different domain: international management. His current research project examines the challenges that foreigners face in adopting practices central to effective management in their new national culture that seem inauthentic in light of their native-born culture.

We are also pooling our expertise to collaborate on a project about effective ways people can manage themselves over the duration of complex and taxing managerial tasks—and how companies can help them succeed in this endeavor.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.