By a recently laid-off professional
Jewish nonprofits often act more like family than like a business. This can create a positive familiarity, and that can also have challenges. When it comes to laying off employees, it becomes especially complicated. I’ve now been laid off twice – each time by a mission driven nonprofit, and whose mission I support and believe in. Both times it was a financial decision.
I’ve learned a lot from each of these experiences, and I want to share my experience with the employers out there. The below advice and thoughts are either based on my experience or from speaking with colleagues and friends who also experienced layoffs during the COVID-19 era.
It is also my hope that those who are being laid off can use this as a guide to assert themselves in their negotiations with the organization.
The various colleagues and friends who experienced layoffs that I spoke with will be referred to by pseudonyms.
Getting laid off sucks.
When you call your employee, make sure they are somewhere quiet and private. Don’t do this while they are out grocery shopping, as happened to Leah*. Schedule a meeting time with some notice so that nobody is caught off guard.
Losing your job sucks and is painful. Acknowledge this fact and be honest about the circumstances. Don’t bury the lede in the conversation, people appreciate when you are direct and honest. It’s more awkward for everyone when you dance around what you’re trying to say. After you have shared the news, give your employee a few moments if they need it.
Then briefly explain the budget challenges (if the employee is not already aware) and briefly express your feelings about the situation.
Provide a meaningful severance
Depending on the financial situation of your organization, do what you can to pay your employee for a month or two so that they can remain on their feet while looking for their next job.
Knowing that nonprofit salaries tend to be lower, being laid off may immediately put them in a challenging financial place. Give adequate notice and give them some time to evaluate their fiscal position. Providing a severance is the Jewish thing to do.
I heard “you’ll always be a part of our (organization’s) family.” It’s a nice platitude. For me, this felt mostly meaningless. Jewish nonprofits are often intimate spaces, and I already knew I would always be part of the family and didn’t need to hear that. What I wish I heard from my employers instead was, “Here are some of the ways in which you have made our organization better, and this is how we are going to see greater success long term because of your work.” That would have meant a whole lot more to me!
Hannah* provided another perspective on the conversation here. She felt that it’s also important to recognize the personal relationships that have developed:
“Part of the hardest part of being in the Jewish communal nonprofit space and losing your job is that our identities are so deeply tied to our work – in this case, I spent many years of my life connected to the place where I worked, and getting to work for this community was an extension of myself. Reminding me that these relationships are more than just professional was both challenging and helpful.”
You need to know your employee, and tailor the message for them best.
What you can do for your employee
Offer your employee a letter of recommendation, not just availability as a reference. A written letter of recommendation will help remind them that their work is appreciated. Being laid off isn’t personal. What is personal is how each of the colleagues and members of the leadership team treat the employee afterward. This letter can help them see this. Consider having this letter written ahead of the meeting and providing it right at the close. This can show the level of thought and care that went into a challenging decision.
If within means, offer outplacement or job searching services (or a bonus amount for this purpose). You might even be able to offer them hours during the workday to spend consulting with the CEO, HR staff, or a board member on their job search and application process. One of my employers was willing to contribute towards a resume and LinkedIn writer I wanted to work with. This showed me that my previous boss cared about my future, and helped me learn about the more corporate job application process as well.
Leverage your professional and personal contacts with other businesses, board members, or vendors. Ask your employee if they would like introductions either about future work or for informational interviews. It won’t cost you anything and can go a long way in employee goodwill. It also will make it clear to the rest of the team that if they ever are in a position they are laid off, they know the company will take care of them.
Finishing up work
While employees are in their final weeks, keep them in the loop. They can only help and finish up projects if they know what’s happening at work. Sarah* told me how bad it felt receiving a mass email from the company and learning about events from a mass email instead of internal communication. She also felt ignored by a number of people in her office during her final weeks, and it left a bad taste with her as she completed her time.
Ask your employee how much or how little they want to remain involved in certain projects as they tie up loose ends and what they’re comfortable doing. Follow their lead, and give them some time and space to process and think this through. Follow up sensitively. This can be a traumatic experience, and your employee may want to fully finish up some projects, or they may want to back away from others.
Sarah* shared the sentiment, “Give me a choice of how I want to be involved and let me decide. Don’t make the decisions for me!” Sarah* clearly wanted to finish up a project, and only being included as an afterthought didn’t feel good.
A challenge Leah* felt sharply was having her email shut down that same day. Give your employee a chance to tie up loose ends nicely. Give them some time to clean out their inbox, detangle devices, and make a copy of files that are non-proprietary and could be portfolio pieces for them. Allow your employee to email their work contacts to share that they will be moving on from the organization, and let them create that closure.
Sarah shared that her company sent lunch to everyone for a remote farewell lunch in a wave of layoffs. What a great idea to create a distant community and feeling of a unified activity!
Jewish organizations are often tight-knit and the boundaries between personal and professional can easily blur. Check in with your employee and ask: how do you want to say goodbye to the office? It’s important to follow their lead here too. Be aware of this when thinking of what a goodbye might look like.
If your employee is heavily client-facing, it’s also important to share the news with key partners, lay leaders, and clients and inform them who will be taking on some of their responsibilities. Get their input on how this should look for your specific situation. It might make sense to send a joint email to clients, or maybe your employee sends an email to key partners and copies their new contact. This also gives them a chance to say farewell to those with whom they have cultivated relationships.
Separate from the letter of recommendation from the supervisor, the CEO or department head should personally write a letter of thanks. Again, thank your employee for their work, and thank them for all they have done to better the organization.
Regardless of how long your employee has worked for you, they likely have some insight on strengths and challenges of the office culture and perhaps some suggestions on how to improve. Plan to spend some time with them (after they have had time to process) to discuss and share feedback.
None of this is foolproof, and this is from only a few perspectives. Getting laid off is hard on the managers who are letting staff go, and it can be earth shattering on the employee. It is your duty to do everything you can to minimize the fallout. Remember: Getting laid off is not personal. How the managers and colleagues treat the employee IS personal!
Each of the stories shared here are real experiences by myself or friends and colleagues. The advice represents our collective feelings on how we wished or hoped our employers would have handled this incredibly complicated and emotional experience. Sometimes Jewish nonprofits would benefit from acting more like businesses. Layoffs are part of business. Other times, nonprofits benefit from being a Jewish family and organization. This is a time when they really need to be both. It is on you and your professional team to make this experience as painless as possible and to uphold your organization’s Jewish values in the process.