How Can I Decide Who to Lay Off???

During a recent Q & A session on Facebook, this question came in from a manager in our community:

Due to the pandemic, our company has had to halt our operations. As a result, we need to lay off some of our employees. It’s hard for me to decide who among my subordinates will stay or not because they’re all great. Please help.

As managers, many of us have faced or will face a decision like this. Honestly, tough times can lead to some dark days as a manager, feeling like there’s no great options, but a decision still needs to be made.

Here was my response. I hope that it helps you in the days ahead.


Wow! Thank you for the question. It sounds like you’re in a very difficult spot. And of course, as managers, many of us are in places we never thought we’d be, making decisions we never thought we’d have to make.

First of all, please talk to Human Resources and to your leadership. Get their input, if you haven’t already. But, it sounds like the decision is primarily up to you about who to lay off. I’m sure you appreciate all of the complex things that will result as you make this decision, including the lives that will be affected. And for being willing to think through all of those important things, I commend you!

If you and I were in a coaching session together, I would ask you to think about the person that you want to be in making this decision.

What characteristics of the person that you want to be do you want to make sure shine through as you handle this difficult project?

What would be some of the ways that you would see those values coming through as you make this decision?

I’d also want to talk with you about life after COVID-19.

When your company resumes operations, as a leader, what will be most important for you then? How will your team look?

Who would you want to make sure you have working with you then?

In looking ahead to that time, what do you see that will support you in making the best decision you can right now?

During a session, we’d also cover the practical side of making this decision.

What are some of all of the possible ways that you could find a solution to this problem?

Could the decision be based on seniority? Status (full-time/part-time/something else)? Could it be based on merit? For example, if you have a sales team, you definitely don’t want to lay off your top performers. Or is it some combination of those things?

We can get the most powerful part of your decision-making brain involved if we incorporate some visual components. For example, we could create a list of the names of the members of your team. As we talk, we’d seek to find different ways to rank them and group them.

Even though there’s no perfect answer, during a session like this, you’ll find that one idea starts to feel more comfortable than the others. And as you explore the path that you feel (even slightly) inclined toward, I would invite you to listen to your wise inner critic (that part of you that loves to pick apart your plans and point out what could go wrong). Listen deeply for anything that comes up from that wise critic within you. What is that part of you saying? How might you use what you learn from it to plan around any potential roadblocks? What might be the next best step to take to get this plan in motion?

Finally, just a bit about mindset when it comes to decisions like this. As I mentioned already (it deserves to be repeated), as managers, we are often faced with situations in which there is no obvious best answer. But that’s the job. And it’s impossible to see all of the future consequences of the choices we make. All you can do is your best. Then, take action and keep working to make the decision successful. If you find out you made a bad call, you can fix it later. Often, the only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision at all.


Whether you’re faced with this exact situation, or some other impossible decision, I hope my response is helpful for you in thinking through how you might proceed. Please let me know what feedback you have (even if you totally disagree with my ideas). 😁

And if you have a question or I can support you and your team in any way, please let me know!

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