It is, almost beyond a doubt, the worst part of being a manager: Layoffs. Firings. Letting go of your painstakingly hired and trained employees.
“From the moment that I know what’s going to happen to when it happens and after it happens, I’m sick to my stomach, nervous, sad—I hate it,” says Brantley Payne, Partner and Creative Director of the Sacramento creative agency un/common.
In the design field especially, creative directors often have to lay off talented workers whose accounts have simply dried up. What makes it particularly painful is that it’s no fault of their own, but rather an unpredictable downside of working in a volatile industry.
On the other hand, underperforming designers or creatives can put a bad face forward to important clients and tarnish the reputation of everyone else on the team. In those cases, it’s important to act quickly, but the dread that managers feel about firing can slow things down.
The creative directors I spoke with said they experience a cocktail of guilt, sadness, anxiety, and regret while delivering the bad news. But they’ve learned over time how to work through those feelings, put on their grown-up pants, and improve every time. They’ve even tailored their firings to designers and creative workers—who have special needs when being told their talents are no longer needed.
Related: Secrets of design leadership from Stanley Wood of Spotify
Sadly, managers don’t often share advice on firings because it’s a taboo topic. To admit that your agency has been through firings or layoffs looks bad. Plus, as soon as you’re done with the deed, you’d rather not think about it. Thankfully, these creative directors stepped forward to help out the creative community at large.
Always be empathetic
After my friend and designer Allen Ramirez was let go from thinkPARALLAX in San Diego, I had a higher opinion of the agency. Who knew it was possible to get good publicity from a layoff?
Ramirez, a remote worker, was given a higher-than-industry-standard severance package, and his managers invited him to let it all out in one-on-one video chats that were more like therapy sessions. They’ve since connected him with new gigs, and now he’s a successful freelance designer.
Guusje Bendeler, co-founder of thinkPARALLAX, says she would do it the same way again.
“We wanted to make sure people weren’t left high and dry,” she says.
Bendeler’s philosophy mirrored what I heard from other creative directors: Whether it’s a layoff or a true firing, always be empathetic and think through what it’s like to be in the position of the person across the table.
Meghan Phillips, owner of Sacramento’s Honey Agency, never does layoffs in the office because she knows the rigid atmosphere would make her feel uncomfortable if she were the one getting fired.
“Accept that your business won’t always be the right place for every employee.”
“I meet people before work for coffee or after work for a drink—it softens the environment,” Phillips says. “When you’re doing it in the office, it’s hard, and I like it to be a fluid conversation.”
But Phillips wasn’t always this self-assured about firing.
“The first few times it was so rough days leading up to it, I couldn’t get the courage,” she says. “These people are like family to me—I care a lot about these humans. As I’ve grown in my career, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be that bad. There’s a relief for both parties at the end. If it’s a layoff because there’s not enough funds to pay them or it’s not a right fit, it’s stressful to hold that worry. So there’s usually relief.”
As a manager, she says it’s important to accept that your business won’t always be the right place for every employee—and that’s okay. The same puzzle piece could fit perfectly on another board, she says. Even as Phillips has grown to understand this, she still accepts that each firing is a learning opportunity for her as a manager. And certain conversations are never easy.
“Especially when there are folks with families, I get a little more squeamish,” she says. “Yeah there’s guilt, but I always think karmically I need to help them. If my job is to tell them they’re not a right fit, I also hired them, and that’s my mistake. I hold the guilt of: Did I hire too fast or incorrectly? Did I train them well enough? If it’s a layoff, the guilt is: Did I work hard on business development? It’s on me, did I do enough? That’s where my guilt lies.”
To turn a difficult situation into something positive, these creative directors have a few rules they keep returning to.
Ask for feedback
“I learn—every single time I let someone go—about myself,” Phillips says. “As a manager, it’s important to know it’s not just about the person you’re letting go, but also your leadership skills.”
Phillips gives employees an exit form with space to share their feedback on her as a manager.
After all, when firing an employee, the manager is responsible for hiring and training that person in the first place. In a sense, a termination is a failure for both the employee and the manager. You were supposed to work toward professional development together, and to some degree, you fell short as a team.
To make firing an opportunity for growth, ask for feedback in the mode that makes your employee—who’s going through a rough moment—most at ease. Offer the option for spoken or written feedback so they don’t feel ambushed.
“I like asking: How has this been for you? What could have made this a more thriving situation for you? What have you learned at Honey Agency?”
“In a sense, a termination is a failure for both the employee and the manager.”
Prepare yourself—and your employees
“My darkest days are when I have to lay people off,” Payne says. “I still don’t think I’ve landed on the right way because it’s painful.”
One thing Payne’s certain of? “My goal is for that meeting not to be a surprise for that person,” he says. If it’s a layoff, he’ll let creatives know—well ahead of time—that the relationship with a client is unstable. If it’s a firing, he’ll have had multiple professional development meetings with that worker, each time asking them to hit agreed-upon objectives. That way, if the person is falling short, they’ll know.
Phillips does the same.
“I’ve never had a person blindsided,” she says. “Even when we laid people off because we lost a big account, they knew.”
Aside from preparing the employee, it’s also crucial to come to each meeting prepared with the necessary legal documents and the point-by-point list of what the employee should do to improve. If it’s a firing, a manager should have at the ready all the “brass tax”—who sends out the email to staff letting everyone know, when the staff email address and passcodes expire—as well as explanations for the termination itself.
“Be extremely prepared and be extremely empathetic,” Phillips says. “You might be riddled with questions by the person, and if you aren’t prepared to speak honestly about the why, then that’s going to hurt that person for a long time. If they don’t know why they were let go, it’s important. It’s important to be prepared and honest and empathetic, and that will always turn into a better severing of the relationship.”
Firings can even be beneficial to the person leaving—but you probably shouldn’t open the conversation with that sentiment.
Bendeler had this idea in the back of her mind during her round of layoffs. When her employees realized on their own that their termination might open up a better future, Bendeler agreed and told them why.
“I didn’t want to sound pompous about that—because I laid them off, I didn’t do them a service,” Bendeler says. “It’s painful, it’s scary, it’s not cool, but as soon as they started talking about these things, it was like: ‘Yeah, you’re right, this can help you.’”
“If you aren’t prepared to speak honestly about why you’re letting someone go, that’s going to hurt them for a long time.”
In one case, with the cushion of severance, a laid-off designer was able to pursue her real love: photography and videography.
“That seemed to be her passion, but she was complacent in her ways of executing and not pushing herself into further development,” Bendeler says. “It forced her to look at herself and say: What do I really want to do? How do I feel fulfilled?”
Sometimes designers stay at an agency past the point when they still have something to learn. Their professional development suffers as a result. Or they’ve lost touch with the creative drive that brought them to design in the first place. For some, layoffs can light a fire, Bendeler says.
Especially important in letting go of creatives? Stressing their strengths. Share where you see them ending up so they can envision a new future.
“Creativity is extremely personal business,” Payne says. “It’s something you’re putting a piece of your heart and soul into and that you hope people like, and all creatives are really sensitive ego-driven weirdos. We really are, it’s funny.”
With that in mind, choose your feedback carefully. You might not want to tell a designer they don’t have an eye for tertiary colors.
“I don’t tell them things about themselves that I don’t think they can change,” Payne says. “I tell them things that I think can push them in the direction of things they’re good at. You can tell if they want to hear it or not.”
“Take the opportunity to help someone find their purpose.”
Phillips says designers aren’t always self-aware of their strengths, and there are so many specialities within the creative industry. For the sake of your employee’s future (and your own conscience), the best thing you could do in a firing is to illustrate a vision of that person’s future success.
“For a creative, it’s good for them to know where they have a really powerful talent that they could harness,” she says. “So making sure as they exit, share what they need to work on: ‘So, hey, you need to spend more time working on your Photoshop skills or UX for websites.’ You don’t want to tell a creative they’re not good, but anyone in the art field needs to feel their talents are being harnessed.”
To take the edge off of a terrible conversation, remember that in a firing or a layoff, you always have the opportunity to help someone find their purpose. So why not take it?
Learn more about what it takes to be a successful design leader—read the Design Leadership Handbook at DesignBetter.co.
Independent writer, editor, Californian. My passion for storytelling has taken me around the world: I worked as a freelance writer and teacher in Mexico City for a year, then got my master's in digital journalism at Columbia University. I've had reporting stints at The Miami Herald, Napa Valley Register, and Mother Jones. I'm also the former managing editor of Communication Arts magazine, a commercial art publication that's been in Northern California since 1959.