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‘I Feel So Guilty About Laying Off My Staff’

Photo-Illustration: The Cut

The idea of work is stressful as hell right now. People are worried about how to keep their jobs or find new ways to replace the income they’ve lost. For some people, workloads are way too high and for others worryingly low. Video calls are regularly being hijacked by kids and half-clad spouses, or worse, zoombombed by trolls. So let’s talk about these strange new circumstances we work in. Here are answers to some of the questions that landed in my inbox this week.

“I’m overwhelmed with guilt about having to lay off my staff”

I am a department manager at a nonprofit that is shut down for the foreseeable future, which means we have no reliable revenue stream apart from the generosity of donors. Every week, I’m getting asked to make more and more cuts to staffing and to pare down to the “essentials” so we will continue to have enough money to make payroll. While I completely understand why this needs to be done, I’m becoming overwhelmed with guilt and finding it difficult to stay focused and do my own work because I know the impact this is having on my staff. It also feels awful to tell someone their job is not considered essential. How do I get through this as a manager without being consumed by overwhelming guilt and despair?

It’s an awful feeling, so of course you’re distracted and upset! You wouldn’t be a good manager if you weren’t. (Imagine the sort of manager who can blithely cut people and not have it weigh heavily on them.) Your distress is a sign of your care for and investment in the people on your team.

Can you find comfort in figuring out ways to use your role to make a hard situation a little bit better for people? For example, you can work to ensure layoffs are handled with empathy and compassion rather than soullessly. You can advocate for as much support as you can get for them from the organization (like continued health insurance, if that’s possible) and connect them with resources — from info on unemployment benefits to job leads. You can make sure your work environment is supportive for the people left behind — that employees feel they have time and space to process what’s happening and ask questions and that they’re not burdened with unrealistic expectations about their productivity while you’re short-staffed.

You can also let people know their position being cut isn’t a reflection on their work or their value and that you’d welcome them back when your funding returns (if that’s true). In fact, I’d avoid telling people their positions aren’t “essential”; every employee is needed or you wouldn’t have hired them. It’s just our current crappy reality that has forced you to cut down to the bare minimum to stay afloat.

“Can I ask my co-workers to stop sending around coronavirus jokes?”

My 30-ish-person office is all working from home, and some of my colleagues are taking it upon themselves to send coronavirus jokes and memes to everyone on staff or to forward articles about the pandemic that aren’t at all relevant to the work we do.

Like many people, I’m having a hard time with anxiety related to COVID-19. I also have an autoimmune disease that’s exacerbated by stress, so I’m making a conscious effort to limit my news intake during this time. Being reminded of what’s going on via random emails and jokes is not helpful. Is there a way I can tell people to stop doing this or is this something I just have to deal with?

You’re probably not the only one who’s a bit sick of having news you didn’t ask for pushed on you — and the jokes seem like they risk coming off as especially tasteless to anyone whose friends or family have been touched more directly by the virus.

But it can be tricky to ask people to cut this out completely, because for many people, being able to share news and jokes is as anxiety-relieving for them as it is stressful for you. An easier way to approach it might be to propose a different avenue for these messages. Can you suggest a Slack channel for people who want to talk about the outbreak? An email list? You could say, “I’m finding it stressful to receive so many emails about the pandemic while I’m working. Would you be up for creating a Slack channel for it instead so people can opt in and people like me can opt out?”

“How do I resign when I’m on furlough?”

Like many people right now, I’m on furlough, as my employer’s revenue dropped significantly due to COVID-19. When my boss called me to let me know, he told me that he would like to invite me back when it’s over, but it’s not a guarantee and will depend on how the company weathers this storm. For this reason, I’ve decided to start looking for a new position that’s more stable. I work in finance, so I can do my job remotely, and there was a shortage of financial professionals in my area before the pandemic started, so I have a fair amount of opportunities. 

If I land a new position, how should I let my boss know while I’m on furlough? Also, should I let them know I’m looking? And am I wrong for potentially leaving the company in a bad place if I’m not there to pick up my workload and train on the tools I was in the process of creating when things go back to the new normal?

When your company stops paying you and lets you know they can’t promise they’ll be able to rehire you, the only sensible thing to do is to job-search! So they shouldn’t be surprised that you’re looking, and, in fact, probably assume you are. But you don’t need to explicitly let them know (you never need to disclose that to an employer, even if you weren’t furloughed).

If you accept another job, at that point you can contact your boss and let them know. You don’t need to give notice since you’re not currently working. You’d just say something like, “I wanted to let you know I’ve accepted a new position, which I’ll be starting soon. I enjoyed working with you, and I’d love to stay in touch.”

And you’re absolutely not in the wrong to move on, even though it means you won’t be there to carry on your work when they bring people back. You can’t put your professional life — and your income — on hold without a guarantee of continued work. It’s not your company’s fault that they can’t give you that guarantee, but no reasonable person would expect you to wait around without a paycheck to see if maybe they’ll have work for you at some undetermined point in the future. When your company did furloughs, they understood this was a possible (even likely) outcome.

“How do I even write a cover letter in the age of the coronavirus?”

I started looking for a new job a few months ago. I’m still trying to apply to the few listings popping up, but I’m struggling with cover letters. My usual language seems too upbeat given the global pandemic. “I look forward to hearing from you” almost feels demanding when I know that people are scrambling and just trying to get by in these new circumstances. Should I adjust the tone of my cover letter? Is there a way to gracefully address that I know everything is a mess and I don’t expect things to be running in a normal timeline?

You’re overthinking it! “I look forward to hearing from you” is still fine to say. It’s not demanding in this context; it’s a pretty normal way to end a cover letter (and really, job candidates write it all the time without knowing if they’ll ever actually hear anything).

If it brings you peace of mind, you could write, “I’d welcome the opportunity to talk about the role whenever it’s convenient for you.” But you don’t need to spell out that you know people are scrambling or that you’re braced for delays. As long as you’re polite and don’t sound impatient — which includes not calling to check on your application days later — you’ll be fine. Hiring managers aren’t typically parsing cover letters that closely!

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘I Feel So Guilty About Laying Off My Staff’