What It's Like to Be The One Doing the Layoffs

What It's Like to Be The One Doing the Layoffs

Dear Girlboss reader,

Okay—so, you just got laid off. Your reaction may fall into one of, or some complicated blend of, the following buckets:

  1. “I’m relieved. I wasn’t a fan of the work or the company/culture but was nervous to leave on my own terms.”
  2. “I’m surprised and scared. I had not accounted for or budgeted for this and feel pretty overwhelmed about my future.”
  3. “I’m upset because I loved the job, the company and the work I was doing. I was happy overall, and I’m nervous I won’t find a role like that again.”
  4. “Huh?! I’m confused as f*ck! How did this happen? And why me?”

As the co-founder and COO of the wholesale marketplace Bulletin, a manager, and someone that’s had to implement layoffs before, I’m best equipped to help address the shock and confusion of getting let go by your employer, a.k.a. #4. This may come as a surprise to you, but the experience likely feels sudden, sh*tty and shocking to your employer, too. At least, it has for me.  

Laying off an employee (or several) hurts on a psychological and emotional level. Impostor syndrome triggers an avalanche of negative self-talk. You start to question your competence as a leader and your ability to forecast and plan correctly. You worry about your team’s wellbeing, and it can feel like you’ve done some ruthless blood sacrifice to save or help Your Baby (a.k.a. Your Company), at the expense of real human beings who were relying on you to pay their bills, provide consistent health insurance and help them grow in their respective roles and careers. 

When we implemented a round of layoffs at the start of COVID, the process felt paralyzing and surreal from start to finish. I sat across from employees I felt so indebted to. As I explain in my book, from my position as manager, my team helped me build a rocketship. But as a founder, I knew they helped me build my rocketship. My heart ached for them and for what was happening. But on some level, I also felt relieved, because we were doing it as part of a larger pivot, and under an urgent obligation, to keep the business alive and growing. Layoffs trigger a rollercoaster of emotions in real time, and some of the emotions feel true and valid, like the sense of mourning, the shame and the pangs of empathy. And some of the other emotions—like the relief, or the sudden lightness when it’s all over—feel dirty and wrong. And, at least in my case, they all live with you for weeks. 

Ultimately though, I’m not the one that should be venting or sharing the toll layoffs take on company leadership. Instead, I’d like to educate as best I can to provide some intel and insight into why you may have been laid off, and what could have been going on behind-the-scenes to prompt your exit.

You Didn’t Fail. If Anything, Your Employer Did

Many working professionals, especially those who might be newer to the job market, go about their days believing, to some extent, that their capital E “Employer” has a capital P “Plan,” and that most decision-makers in the C-suite “know what they’re doing.” This may be especially true if you work at a bigger company where things feel buttoned-up and professional. I remember in my early years in the marketing department at an Anonymous Fancy Media Company, I assumed that my boss, a “big deal” vice president within the company, was some brilliant Wizard of Oz type who was generally infallible. He made me feel like things would always go to plan. That was, until he started asking me to schedule ambiguous 20-minute meetings with dozens of people in our department, and then laid them off one by one, right next door to my sad little cubicle. 

According to U.S. News and World Report, “being fired means you are terminated from your job due to something that the company deems was your fault. If you are laid off, though, it means the company deems that they are at fault.” Companies and their executives make mistakes—constantly. Maybe they hired too many people because they projected more growth than they could muster, maybe they picked the wrong part of their product to expand and invest in, or maybe they chose the wrong location for a new launch or a new market.  

These decisions have ripple effects, and sometimes, they have a high and hard personnel cost. Budgeting, projections, hiring plans—it’s all a science, but it isn’t perfect. Layoffs are a result of those imperfections. Maybe, like me when I was at Anonymous Fancy Media Company, you had some engrained trust in your employer, your direct manager or boss, or the trajectory of the company you work for. But if you’re not on the exec team or in the boardroom, some higher-level decisions will always feel opaque. It can feel like sh*t to be part of the collateral damage of other people’s poor judgment, especially on decisions that were made with little transparency for you, the employee.

If it makes you feel any better, know that the people in power who flubbed their projections, picked the wrong market or hired too quickly will get a stern talking to, will have to confront some sort of critical performance review, or end up in a similar position in due time for their mistakes. 

Employers Can’t Control Every Variable

That being said, company leadership can’t see around every corner, no matter how hard they try. In late 2019, no one could have predicted the pandemic, let alone a pandemic of this velocity and scale. No one can predict exactly when a market downturn, or even worse, a recession will strike—not to the day, or even the week. No one can predict how launching in a new market will go, especially if there are uphill battles with local legislation or laws that change and affect your industry. As a consumer business, for example, your fulfillment center could shut down by no fault of your own, the supply chain could fall apart because of someone else’s constipated cargo, or new regulations could force you to reformulate your products. These horrifying, unexpected blips have happened to many founders I know.

All of this to say, employers are subject to the same market, political and economic volatility we as individuals are subject to. So even when, in the rare cases, an employer projects growth to a tee, or nails their hiring science, or the ebb and flow of their supply and customer demand, there are a million things out of their control that can go wrong and lead to layoffs. In many cases, employers are leading blind—which is a scary truth, but a truth nonetheless. I have deep empathy for founders and executives that have had to lead through the last few years, years marked by unpredictability and best guesses. No one wants to lay anyone off. No one wants to cut anyone’s career off at the knees. You don’t have to have empathy for these leaders just yet—you need to focus on yourself and your next steps—but I often find that empathy is a solid cure for mounting resentment or anger in these delicate situations. 

Know What’s You Deserve—And Ask For It

If you’ve been laid off, whether it because your employer f*cked up or the world is just brutal and messy and hard to predict, for both employees and their leadership right now, cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s and make sure you’re properly taken care of. This obviously depends on the nature of your employment and where you are employed, but ask for severance or push for more. Ask for an extension on your healthcare coverage, especially if you have any sort of debilitating or serious condition and need consistent care. If your employer is offering some form of continued coverage but you’re under 26 and covered by your parents’ policies, or never took your company’s health insurance in the first place, ask if you can apply those funds to your severance package or an online course where you can keep learning and up-skilling for a competitive job market.  Ask your direct manager for a letter of recommendation—and set a deadline for receipt. Ping your former colleagues and ask for references, connections to potential new employers, as well as any open feedback on your performance at the company.

This may reassure you or it may not, but at the end of the day, companies are just living, breathing, money-making organisms run by imperfect people. But sometimes, their best just isn’t enough, whether because leadership had blind spots or faulty assumptions they should have accounted for, or blind spots and assumptions that keep getting wrecked by a world that seems to keep combusting and reassembling itself every other week. 

You are not alone. And most importantly, you are not at fault. Layoffs feel sudden, sh*tty and shocking to everyone involved, yes, but you’re in the driver’s seat in deciding how much you let it weigh on your self-esteem, and how much you push your employer to support you, advocate for you, and show up for you on the other side.

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