Me too.

I’ve been part of a layoff this year. Six months after the event, with more distance, it still feels a little bitter. Why? Why are we taking it personally and emotionally when we are let go?

As a Team and Studio Lead, I have been more often in a position of power where I had to decide the fate of people in a team: Should that person be hired? Should that person stay? Should that person go?

I remembered when I had to announce to someone they had to leave, there’s always been a lot of emotions and frustration in those discussions. On my end and on the other end too. Why is that?

It’s only recently when I’ve been on the other side of the conversation that I could fully comprehend why parting ways with a company feels so personal and emotional. Especially when it is not consensual.

My experience made me think and reflect on how we could handle layoffs and employment separations better as managers. Remember the saying: “It is not personal, it is strictly business”?

Does that still stand today with the nature of our work that requires passion, and cognitive and creative skills, especially in the entertainment industry?

(Qualified) work today is personal. It feels personal.

The expectations of workers have dramatically evolved over the past decade if we compare them to the generation of Boomers who worked to make a living.

As the generation of Millennials and GenZ, we don’t work to live. We work for various personal reasons: to make an impact, to belong to a group, to have a purpose, to do what we love…

Therefore, what we do and who we interact with are personal.

  • Personal input: We put a part of ourselves into what we do. We invest our ideas, our inspirations, and our creativity. We care for other people and for an audience.
  • Relationships: We build personal relationships at work that go beyond simple colleague relationships. In a competitive industry like gaming, we go through ups and downs together, we share hardships, and we create deep bonds and memories.
  • Community and Purpose: By joining a professional cause, we belong to a group with a specific purpose. During Covid, the need of belonging was even more critical as many suffered from social isolation.

Esther Pérel, a renowned couple therapist, produced a whole podcast series “How’s Work” about work dynamics, drawing similarities between romantic relationships and co-workers/co-founders relationships.

Following the analogy of a romantic relationship, how does it emotionally feel when you are let go by your company? It feels like being dumped and it stings. It’s a feeling of loss.

  • you lose a part of your identity: Who am I if I’m not belonging to this group?
  • You lose a part of your self-esteem: How wasn’t I good enough?
  • You lose a community and sense of purpose: What do I want now (in life)?

Those are big questions of life that cause stress and anxiety, on top of being let go. So, what can we do and should do as managers? What is the right thing to do in those situations?

I am not saying we should avoid staff reduction and dismissals. Those are inevitable events in the nature of running a business. I am not saying we should take responsibility for employees’ personal lives either. But we can decide how we separate from someone else, treating people as humans before employees.

Why does it matter? It goes back to your values and integrity as a leader. How are you showing up as a leader in those difficult situations? It is not during the good times that we really see the culture of a company, but during the worse times. So, what do you stand for?

Also, when we end up firing people or dramatically downsizing teams, it is most of the time a failure on the management side. Should someone else pay for our own mistakes? Here are the most common management mistakes I have seen when it comes to team composition and size:

  • Scaling too fast before proving the financial success of the business. Failing in generating profit leads to cutting teams dramatically.
  • Hiring too fast before having clarity on the needs and mission of the person. Hiring the wrong person(s) for the wrong role and mission.
  • Overpromise and underdeliver: overpromising unrealistic growth to investors. Then when the company is not delivering, cutting drastically the staff to artificially show the financial health of the company.

Again, I am not saying we should avoid reducing staff or parting ways with someone when the stability of the company is at stake. But we should definitely own our mistakes and mismanagement as leaders, and rethink how we could approach the conversation of letting go of someone. Taking responsibility moves the blame away from another one to ourselves.

The exit conversation is the last impression the person will get from you and your company. How do you want to be remembered? What is the legacy and reputation you want to leave behind? Here are my 2 cents on how to deliver the message with empathy and responsibility:

  • Give the context, own your mistakes: explain to the person the reasoning that led to this decision. Don’t try to be right or justify your decision. Focus on delivering the message.
  • Show empathy: understand that the news is a shock for the person and try to be in their shoes in that conversation.
  • Give recognition: focus on the good over the bad. Give constructive feedback. Let the person go with confidence about their abilities.
  • Give space and time: give time for the person to process the news before making it public and effective.
  • Help out: if possible, help the person on their next job. Set them up for success in their next role.

If you would like to hear more ideas on how to approach the exit conversation, I have shared in-depth my own thinking in this episode with Building Better Games.

Laying off and letting go of employees will never feel good. But at least, we can make it feel a little less bad for the person leaving. People should feel proud and confident about the good work they’ve done with you when they leave!

Turning The Lens On You ✍️

Here are a few reflection questions to design with intention the experience of an employee leaving your company:

  • Intention: What is the last impression and memory you want to give the person when they leave your workplace?
  • Values: How are you staying true to your personal (or company) values during this exit process and beyond?
  • Recognition: How did you deliver your recognition and thank you to the employee you let go? How did you compensate them?
  • Reputation: How do you want the person to talk about your company after they left?

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