Column: Advice to CEOs on Their Upcoming Layoffs – From Someone Who Has Done it Before

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Column: Advice to CEOs on Their Upcoming Layoffs – From Someone Who Has Done it Before

The second week of October in 2008 was one of the most painful and emotional times of my career. We ushered 50 Zillow employees into an off-site conference room. I was COO then, and we were about to lay them off -- one-quarter of our staff. The Great Recession had hit, and the management team was following our gut and also the advice of our investors at Benchmark Capital and TCV: cut early and cut deep. Extend the runway. Conserve cash. Survive. I knew we had to make a hard decision to ensure Zillow would continue to thrive.

It's a scenario CEOs around the world dread but one that is becoming more real as the economic toll from coronavirus spreads. Venture capital firms are again warning their companies to prepare for an extended recessionary period. Leadership teams at companies large and small across the globe are meeting to determine their next moves.

I've led companies through two major recessions. The first was Hotwire after 9/11 in 2001. The second was Zillow in 2008 after the Global Financial Crisis. No matter the cause of the recession, the fundamentals of preparing a business for an extended economic downturn are the same — as are the fundamentals of compassionately handling layoffs.

I expect many companies will lay off between 10-20% of their staff in the coming weeks or months. Some furloughs have already been announced, but the real layoffs are still coming. Companies have been on hiring binges for the past 10 years, and many companies can manage to lay off 10% of employees without a significant impact. But that doesn't mean these companies should lose sight of the very human toll reductions take, and handle layoffs sensitively and with care.

Here is some advice from someone who, unfortunately, has some battle scars on this topic:

  1. Reduce headcount once. There is tremendous damage in cutting headcount little by little -- the steady drip-drip of bad news demoralizes a company beyond saving. Get to your target employment count the first time so that you won't have to do it again. This was what we did at both Zillow and Hotwire. It helped our remaining employees feel secure in their jobs and build camaraderie moving forward. At Zillow, we even had some of the laid off employees return once we started hiring again.
  2. Treat those you're letting go as generously as your business can afford to. I don't just mean with severance, although that's important. But also important is the honesty and dignity with which you treat them. If you can, provide outplacement support, or at a minimum gather a list of the affected employees' Linkedin profiles and send them to your VC firms, asking them to circulate. I've also seen some companies do a good job of posting information about employees they have had to let go (with the employees' permission, of course).
  3. Extend the exercise periods on stock options for affected employees. This is possibly the most significant move you can make for those employees. Most standard stock option plans require an employee to exercise their options 30-90 days after leaving a job. But when the employee does that, they have to pay taxes right away. At Hotwire and Zillow, we extended the period to two years. The laid off employees will appreciate this immensely; but also be sure to tell the remaining employees that you made this concession, as it will win them over too.
  4. Have the "are you in or are you out" conversation, ideally before final layoff decisions have been made. The last thing you want is to lose people who want to be there, and keep people who don't. So while making preparations for layoffs, or immediately after, it makes sense to give people the ability to choose to be laid off. They can get severance, and there is less stigma if they leave during a round of layoffs. At both Zillow and Hotwire, some people opted into the layoffs.
  5. Once the layoffs have been announced, use that first all-hands meeting to lock arms with the remaining employees. Acknowledge how hard and uncertain this time is, and that it's terrible to say goodbye to friends and colleagues. But tell them the truth: That the difficult decision has been made and now together, you will all do the best work of their careers during this period. That someday you will all look back on this as a defining moment in your careers. That eventually this, too, will pass.

Downturns are not all bad news. Great companies can be built during these times, too. Both Zillow and Hotwire thrived due to some of the shifts that happened during and after the last recessions. That's because during periods of great disruption, patterns and behaviors change, allowing disruptors and new entrants to thrive -- and new categories to emerge. This unprecedented time in our history will shift business momentum in different directions. It's hard, uncertain and scary, but there is enormous opportunity.

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