The New Rules of Layoffs
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The New Rules of Layoffs

Executives weigh the best way to let people go

Wed, Apr 5, 2023 8:34amGrey Clock 3 min

When McDonald’s Corp. said it would temporarily close its U.S. offices as it conducts layoffs at the burger chain, it brought renewed attention to a debate swirling inside HR departments: What is the best way to let people go?

The question is taking on urgency as more U.S. companies, from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Inc., move to shed staff in a wave of layoffs that is heavily concentrated on white-collar jobs.

When it comes to carrying out those cuts, companies employ a range of approaches designed to minimise the pain and disruption of a difficult process.

Here are six of the questions employers face.

All at once or a little at a time?

Many companies grapple with whether to make one sweeping layoff or do a series of smaller cuts. Both carry risks.

At a time when employers still face challenges filling positions, large job cuts can lead companies to inadvertently cut key units or people, executives say.

Yet, taking it slowly to give a company time to assess its financial situation can take a human toll, creating a prolonged period of anxiety and instability inside an organisation. has enacted more job cuts than expected in recent weeks, announcing last month that it would cut 9,000 more corporate jobs following earlier layoffs.

Face time or FaceTime?

Bosses long believed delivering the bad news face-to-face was the more humane approach. Covid-19 changed the equation. While many workers are being called back to the office, at least part time, full office attendance remains rare. Some executives are now asking themselves whether it is actually easier—and more humane—for employees to learn about a layoff on Zoom versus in-person.

“It almost seems cruel to ask someone to commute into the office just to let them go,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Midweek or Friday?

Just as with in-person firings, the conventional wisdom was Friday was the best day to carry out a layoff. That gave employees the weekend to process the news and plan their next steps.

That thinking has shifted. Many employers now see a midweek announcement as more humane, according to Lorna Hagen, a longtime chief people officer. A layoff on a Wednesday, Ms. Hagen said, can give employees time to talk to HR representatives or benefits providers during business hours in the ensuing days.

It’s not you—it’s me

One mistake managers continue to make, HR professionals say, is to tell employees how hard it is to let them go. “That just hits people the wrong way,” said Mr. Challenger. “It’s not about you.” The latest wave of layoffs often has felt like a competition among CEOs over who could craft the best apology.

Many executives have turned to lengthy memos to explain why they resorted to layoffs. Some of those notes look “suspiciously similar” across different companies, said Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. He recommends that managers be as transparent as possible with employees about the health of a business so that no one is surprised when layoffs are announced.

Multiple months of pay, or less?

The size of exit packages is also up for debate. At the very least, companies should give laid-off employees a month of severance pay, corporate advisers say, though a number of employers have offered more. When Salesforce Inc. said in January that it would lay off employees, Marc Benioff, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, told workers that those in the U.S. would receive a minimum of nearly five months of pay, health insurance and other benefits.

Some smaller companies have received pushback from employees for not accelerating stock-vesting dates or for issuing severance packages that some saw as underwhelming. HR advisers recommend that companies be as generous as possible with exit packages. In an era when employees can easily sound off on a company even when they are being fired, it is also a best practice to develop a severance policy that can be defended.

OK, now who goes?

One of the last, toughest parts of any downsizing: determining who should be let go. The process of developing a layoff list is complicated and can stretch for weeks, with department heads and managers often debating which employees to eliminate. Seniority once guided layoffs, though it is now far more common for companies to assess skills over tenure, and to heavily consider someone’s recent performance.

HR officials will then often scrub a list, wanting to ensure that a company isn’t disproportionately laying off workers over the age of 40, or unfairly targeting minorities and others. Even with much preparation, many veteran HR leaders say layoffs can be messy. “There is no good way to do this,” said Gregory DeLapp, who spent much of his career in HR at the steel and materials manufacturer Carpenter Technology Corp.


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Playful 1950s style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances

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The 1950s spawned society’s view of kitchens as the heart of the home, a hub for gathering, cooking, eating and socializing. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the same decade could inspire today’s luxury kitchens.

“The deliberate playfulness and genius of the era’s designers have enabled the mid-century style to remain a classic design and one that still sparks joy,” said James Yarosh, an interior designer and gallerist in New Jersey.

That playful style spotlights details like coloured cabinets, checkerboard and mosaic tile patterns, vintage lighting, and SMEG appliances—all of which are a conspicuous rejection of the sterile, monochrome kitchens that have defined luxury home design for years. One of the hottest brands to incorporate into retro-style kitchens, SMEG is turning up more these days. But the question is: How do you infuse a colourful refrigerator and other elements from this nostalgic era without creating a kitschy room?

“The key to a modern, fresh look in your kitchen is to reference, not imitate, signature looks of the 1950s,” said New York-based designer Andrew Suvalsky, who often laces retro style throughout the rooms he designs. He said using the period as inspiration will steer you away from imagining a garish space.

“When it comes to incorporating that retro-esque look, it’s a fine dance between looking beautiful and looking kitschy,” added Lisa Gilmore, a designer in Tampa, Florida. Gilmore suggested balancing contemporary pieces with vintage touches. That balance forges a functional yet attractive design that’s easy to live with while evoking a homey atmosphere––and ultimately, a room everyone wants to be in.

Colour Reigns Supreme

Suvalsky said one way to avoid a kitschy appearance is to mingle woods and colours, such as lacquered base cabinets and walnut wall cabinets, as he did in his Montclair, New Jersey, kitchen.

“Mixing colours into your kitchen is most effective when it’s done by colour-blocking––using a single colour across large areas of a space––in this case, zones of cabinetry,” he explained. He tends to lean toward “Easter egg colours,” such as baby chick yellow and pale tangerine. These soft pastels can suggest a starting point for the design while lending that retro vibe. But other hues can spark a vintage feel as well.

A mid-century-inspired kitchen by Blythe Interiors.
Natalia Robert

“Shades of green and blue are a timeless base foundation that work for a 1950s vintage look,” said designer Jennifer Verruto of Blythe Interiors in San Diego. But wood isn’t off the table for her, either. “To embrace the character of a mid-century home, we like a Kodiak stain to enhance the gorgeous walnut grain,” she said. “This mid-tone wood is perfect for contrasting other lighter finishes in the kitchen for a Mid-Century Modern feel.”

Since colour is subjective, a kitchen lined with white cabinetry can assume a retro aesthetic through accoutrements and other materials, emanating that ’50s vibe.

“The fun of retro designs is that you can embrace colour and create something that feels individual to the house and its homeowner, reflecting their tastes and personality,” Yaosh said. He recommended wallpaper as an option to transform a kitchen but suggested marrying the pattern with the bones of the house. “Wallpaper can create a mid-century or retro look with colours and hand-blocked craftsmanship,” he said. “Mauny wallpapers at Zuber are a particular favourite of mine.”

Suvalsky suggested Scalamandre wallpapers, for their 1950s patterns, and grass cloth, a textile that was often used during that decade. He also likes House of Hackney, a brand that “does a great job reinventing vintage prints in luscious colours,” he noted. “Many of their colourways invert the typical relationship between light and dark, with botanical prints in dark jewel tones set over light, more playful colours.”

Materials Matter

Beyond wall covering, flooring, countertops and backsplashes can all contribute to the 1950s theme. Manufactured laminate countertops, specifically Formica, were all the rage during the decade. But today’s high-end kitchens call for more luxurious materials and finishes.

“That’s a situation where going the quartz route is appropriate,” Gilmore said. “There are quartzes that are a through-body colour and simple if someone is doing colorued cabinetry. A simplified white without veining will go a long way.” She also recommended Pompei quartz Sunny Pearl, which has a speckled appearance.

A kitchen designed by James Yarosh that incorporates pops of yellow.
Patricia Burke

But for those who welcome vibrant colour schemes, countertops can make a bold statement in a vintage kitchen. Gilmore said solid surface materials from the era were often a colour, and quartz can replicate the look.

“Some brands have coloured quartz, like red,” she said. But keeping countertops neutral allows you to get creative with the backsplash. “I‘d pull in a terrazzo backsplash or a bold colour like a subway tile in a beautiful shade of green or blush,” Gilmore said. “Make the backsplash a piece of art.”

Suvalsky also leans toward bright and daring––such as checkerboards––for the backsplash. But depending on the kitchen’s design, he’ll go quieter with a double white herringbone [tile] pattern. “Either version works, but it must complement other choices, bold or simple, in the design,” he explained.

Neutral countertops with a bold backsplash, designed by Lisa Gilmore.
Native House Photography

Likewise, his flooring choice almost always draws attention. “My tendency is more toward very bold, such as a heavily veined marble or a pattern with highly contrasting tones,” he noted. Yarosh suggested slate and terrazzo as flooring, as these materials can make an excellent backdrop for layering.

Forge a Statement With Vintage Appliances 

As consequential as a kitchen’s foundation is, so are the appliances and accoutrements. While stainless steel complements contemporary kitchens, homeowners can push the design envelope with companies like SMEG when making appliance selections for a retro-style kitchen. Although Suvalsky has yet to specify a SMEG fridge, he is looking forward to the project when he can.

“I think they work best when the selected colour is referenced in other parts of the kitchen, which helps to integrate these otherwise ‘look at me’ pieces into the broader design,” he noted. “They are like sculptures unto themselves.”

“For our mid-century-inspired projects, we’ve opted for Big Chill and the GE Cafe Series to bring a vintage look,” Verruto added. Similar to SMEG, Big Chill and GE offer a vintage vibe in a wide selection of colours and finishes, alongside 21st-century performance.

Can’t commit to a full-size appliance? Sometimes, a splash is enough. Gilmore tends to dust her retro kitchens with a coloured kettle or toaster since her clients are likelier to add a tinge with a countertop appliance or two. “Mint green accessories make it pop, and if in five years they are over it, it’s not a commitment,” she said. “It’s a great way to infuse fun and colour without taking a major risk.”

Deck out the Breakfast Nook

Kitchen dining areas present the opportunity to introduce retro lighting, furniture, and accessories to complete the look. Flea markets and antique markets are excellent places to hunt for accompaniments.

“Dome pendants and Sputnik chandeliers are iconic styles that will infuse vintage charm into your kitchen while also easily complementing a variety of other styles,” Verruto said.

A retro breakfast nook desinged by Andrew Suvalsky.
DLux Editions

Suspend a vintage light fixture over the classic Saarinen table, and you can’t go wrong.

“Saarinen Tulip Tables are almost always guaranteed to deliver a home run in nearly any interior, especially a 1950s-themed kitchen,” Suvalsky said. “The simplicity of its form, especially in white, makes it nearly impossible to clash with.”

To really channel the vibe of this era, Verruto suggested local vintage stores and brands such as Drexel Heritage and Lexington. Dressing the windows counts, too. “Cafe curtains in a chintz pattern will make for a fabulous finishing touch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Yarosh delights in selecting tabletop items, including novelty stemware and other trappings ubiquitous in the 1950s. “Mid-century kitchens also need to have pedestal cake plates and maybe a cloche to keep a cake,” he mused. “I love the opportunity to curate these details down to the correct fork and serving pieces.”


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