“Don’t Be Cruel—There Are Ways To Let Workers Go With Grace.” This Expert Says Leading With Empathy Is Key As Mass Layoffs Continue

In 2005, three male colleagues awaited Bisila Bokoko when she walked into her job’s conference room for an afternoon meeting. Instead of discussing business initiatives, she was told that she was fired. Bokoko was then informed she would need to immediately hand over her company credit card, security badge, and leave the building. Bokoko wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to the team she’d led for seven years as executive director.

In that moment, she said she felt like a criminal.

“It was probably one of the most demoralizing things I’ve ever gone through,” she told ESSENCE. “I wasn’t allowed to clear my desk, so the only item I was able to was a photo of my children. Seven years, gone just like that.”

Bokoko said the firing came out of nowhere and she was not only shocked but incredibly hurt.

“I know it was a job and not something that happened in my personal life but it really affected me emotionally, you know? I’d spend 16-hour days working for the company so it was really dehumanizing being treated like that.”

Her story may sound familiar.

Last month, Twitter’s freshly minted owner Elon Musk made headlines when he reportedly gutted nearly half of its workforce via a lottery style email message. Some ex-employees even said they’d only been made aware of the layoffs after being locked out of their work Slack accounts.

“In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult process of reducing our global work force,” the email read. “We recognize that this will impact a number of individuals who have made valuable contributions to Twitter, but this action is unfortunately necessary to ensure the company’s success moving forward.”

Musk later explained that due to a significant loss of potential income, he was forced to deploy the layoffs to keep the company afloat. He also said that he planned to encourage a more “super-hardcore” work environment in a late night email last month. The ultimatum: commit to working “extremely hardcore” or resign, as reported by Business Insider

“This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

While new and lofty goals are understandable, Bokoko says there’s a way to make difficult job cuts and enforce tough rules for existing workers that still leaves everyone with their dignity.

“It’s so important to be gracious during a tough process like that, and this is something that’s applicable across any company, sector, or even country I’ve worked in,” the African-Spanish-American founder said, who before moving to the US in 1997, built her career in Spain. She shared that her European-African identity led her understand how to empathetically navigate cultural differences in the workforce. This was especially important to lean into after founding her own consulting company following her firing.

“I’ve learned how to be the leader I needed at that time I was working for my old job,” she shared. “And I’ve grown to understand that as an entrepreneur, difficult decisions are made every day that affects many people’s lives. But I advise other leaders to look at Elon for what NOT to do to employees. That was just cruel and unnecessary in its handling.”

She offered a few key tips on how to lead with empathy.

Developing listening skills. 

“Asking questions and practicing non-verbal encouragement, such as eye contact helps in letting people know you’re actively listening. For me, that means being completely present when a person is speaking with you. Most of the time when somebody is telling us something, we’re already creating a story in our head about how we have to respond to it. Let’s remove our own narrative, and completely focus on what’s being told to us, because that’s the true path to understanding.”

Challenging your own inherent biases. 

“We naturally gravitate toward people of similar minds, but we learn more from conversations with colleagues that take a devil’s advocate position. 

Identify your biases and remove barriers. 

“Recognize that we all have unconscious biases, and remove anything that hinders collaboration and trust,” Bokoko said. “The first thing I did to dismantle my own inherent biases is conduct a self-exercise where I imagined being in an airport, and a pilot walks by, says hello and keeps walking. Later, I’d try to visualize what I think their face looks like. I automatically saw a white male. I tried this exercise with others and they came to same conclusion. The pilot I was referencing was actually a Black woman. So, that’s an example of some subconscious biases we all face that can unintentionally affect the way you can treat your colleagues if not careful. Continuing to build awareness of these biases is incredibly important when learning to lead with empathy.”

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