by Judith Lindenberger  March 19, 2013, 8:05 AM

According to survey results published by Rutgers University in February, nearly a quarter of Americans were laid off during the Great Recession or afterward, and, almost 80 percent of people know a friend or family member who lost a job.

Yes, layoffs are a way of life today.

At this moment we’re in the midst of government spending cuts known as sequestration. It could result in job cuts for FBI agents, air traffic controllers, teachers and police officers. Economists predict that over 2 million American jobs could be lost during the course of the mandate.

Considering that it is likely that many organizations will continue to face layoffs in 2013, caused by sequestration or other economic conditions, what do you need to know in order to prepare for that possibility?

First: Communicate, communicate, communicate

No one likes surprises. Regularly communicating with employees about the health of your business can lower the risk of surprise and increase their understanding of the decision.

What to watch out for: If you search online for “layoffs,” you can read a host of sobering stories about what not to do. For example, people being herded en masse into conference rooms, employees being notified via email, or an HR department managing a host of layoffs only to be rewarded by being laid off themselves afterward.

As outplacement experts, we often see employees soon after they have been notified that their jobs have been cut.

Our first question always is, “Was this a surprise to you?” Just like doctors who get sued more often for poor bedside manner, organizations get sued more often for how they do layoffs, not the layoff itself.

In addition to handling layoffs with delicacy and respect, it is critical that terminations do not come as a surprise to your employees. Anticipating and preparing for the potential of a reduction-in-force helps employees cope and move on.

Second: Have a consistent message

To keep the rumor mill from flooding, provide a consistent message to all employees about the company’s reason for the layoff.

What to watch out for: Before a terminated employee has left your office, he or she could have texted, tweeted, blogged and posted a message on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn about being let go. Including instructions in the severance package about what employees may or may not say about their layoff can help you manage your message.

Third: Keep it short and keep it real

Schedule a private notification meeting with the employee, the employee’s manager and HR. Don’t apologize for laying off the person.

Ahead of time, draft talking points which include the reason for the layoff and what will happen next (i.e., COBRA, severance pay, outplacement, etc.). Don’t talk about the employee’s performance. Don’t tell them that there is “no reason to be angry,” or, that they have “every right to be angry.” Arrange for a time when the employee can retrieve personal belongings in a respectful way or deliver the belongings to the employee.

What to watch out for: While it may be natural to want to sympathize with the employee or help them by telling them why they were selected over someone else, this is neither the time nor place.

Keeping to a script helps you and the employee focus on the key points that their job has been cut and what the company will provide going forward.

Fourth: Pay severance, provide outplacement

Severance payments and outplacement services are usually offered in exchange for a legal release and can significantly reduce the risk of lawsuits. The sooner you get an employee registered in a career outplacement program, the quicker the employee will be focused on his or her next opportunity rather than looking back at a closed door with resentment.

What to watch out for: Make sure you’ve planned the severance agreement with your organization’s legal counsel well in advance of the reduction in force.

Employment law is vastly complex. For example when a severance agreement is offered as part of a group layoff, and a single employee is over the age of 40, and a release of ADEA claims is included, every employee regardless of age must be given 45 days to consider the agreement.

Fifth: Help the survivors cope

Answer the questions that remaining people are thinking: Do I have a job? How will this event impact me?

What to watch out for: Keep your door open and be available. Make sure that the surviving workforce has easy access to the company’s employee assistance program, human resources department and managers to discuss how the reduction in force has impacted survivors.

Treat others as you would want to be treated when doing layoffs.

Copyright © 2015 by The Lindenberger Group, LLC. All rights reserved.