“Perception is everything, and people are going to believe what they perceive, regardless if it is true or not” is one of the first pieces of advice I received when I first started managing people. And it is something that has stuck with me since day one. How we perceive things is built into our DNA, and in business, perception is everything. So how important is perception when it relates to making the tough choices of conducting a layoff? Very.

Recently a manger from the retail industry told me a story about misaligned perception during a layoff. While they were traveling to conduct the layoff, they had the fortune of receiving a free rental upgrade upon arriving to their destination – a brand new convertible Mustang, which they described to me has hitting the jackpot.

The next morning the manager showed up to deliver the news to over 60 employees that the store was closing and they were all being laid off. After the message was delivered, the questions started coming in: “Just curious, was that the managers Mustang?”, “Does the company always provide nice sports cars when they lay their own employees off?”.

This manager felt terrible afterwards. At the time they didn’t think about the negative effect they, as a manager, would have by what the drove. However, what they later realized is the negative perception they were giving to those who would be affected by the lay off. It turned a difficult message and situation into one that was even harder to take in. Many employees felt not only upset with the company for their job loss, but they felt – they perceived – they were being taken advantage of.

During any difficult employment conversation it is important that those who will be delivering the message have taken into account all aspects of appearance, tone, and body language. A simple checklist, like the one below, can be extremely beneficial in double checking yourself:

  • What outfit am I wearing and how will it be perceived? Lay out what you plan to wear (and the accessories you plan on having) when delivering the message days in advance. Perhaps even have friends and family give you feedback.
  • Does this rental car really give off the right message? A rental or a rental upgrade that is inappropriate should be avoided.
  • Have I practiced delivering the message with a colleague, family, or friend? Practicing your delivery and and tone is important. Find a trusted family member or friend to provide you feedback on how your delivery may be perceived.

Perception is everything in these situations, and to ensure that employees feel respected and are treated fairly, we must take into account how the employee will perceive us. This takes practice and a really thorough understanding of emotions and empathy. It can be hard to think of the little things when going through a difficult time of reducing headcount. But it can be the little things that mean the most to those transitioning to their next career.

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