Layoffs are incredibly emotionally draining. For everyone involved. The founders who have to make the tough decisions, the impacted employees whose worlds suddenly get turned upside down, the surviving employees who may experience survivor guilt, and even the investors who wonder what could have been done differently.

We say this firsthand with great empathy, as:

  • We know founders who’ve had to conduct layoffs to keep their company default alive, or even to shut-down. Having to terminate workers who are pregnant, are solo breadwinners, and how heavily this decision weighs on them.
  • We’ve worked in companies where we saw colleagues laid off, or having to execute the layoff as part of management themselves, and the impact of that. The toll it takes on their mental health and even the feeling of embarrassment to tell their families.
  • We’ve also experienced it personally. Cheryl, one of the co-authors of this piece, was impacted by Grab’s Reduction In Force (RIF) back in 2020.
“Upon joining Grab in Singapore after spending 10 years in Silicon Valley, my role got cut when COVID hit - an extremely anxiety inducing experience for me as a foreigner and a mom with two young kids who needed a working visa to stay in the country.”

As a founder - if you are grappling with the prospect of a layoff, consider the following guidelines to help you do it right. Elon Musk may have done a terrible job with Twitter layoffs and lived to tell the tale... But let’s face it, you are not Elon Musk. Conducting layoffs poorly is not only imprudent from a long-term business standpoint, it’s simply inhuman.

💡 100% own the decision to let people go and take accountability.
You may feel you have done everything right, and that external factors turned against you unexpectedly. Even so, if the company over-hired or experimented with unsuccessful business pivots - it all comes back to decisions you took as Founder/ CEO. So you have to be very clear in your own mind why you are laying people off, and be able to communicate this.

What’s Going on in the World?

Not so long ago (2020), electric scooter company Bird Global chose to handle layoffs the “Black Mirror” way [1] where 400+ employees logged on to a one-way Zoom call with a dark gray background slide that said only "COVID-19", and then heard a disembodied, robotic-sounding voice that fired them in two minutes.

Shocking - and yet more recent layoffs from big names like Google and Lazada continue to come under criticism for how poorly they were conducted.

What Can a Founder Do About It?

💡 Aki Taha, former Talent Head at Netflix and Uber SEA: “So many founders go willy-nilly into this, which is the exact opposite of the approach you want to take. Force yourself to codify a plan: what will happen, when; who will be involved, etc: lay out the dates, the times; and corresponding actions to be taken. Even if it means a couple of extra days, it’s worth it.“

1. Be Super Clear and Decisive in Your Communications

Craft a message that comes directly from you, that is compassionate and firm. Your employees deserve to hear it from you. Many will feel betrayed when the announcements come. The only way to begin repairing that trust is to explain at a high level:

this is happening
the transition process will be like
you're supporting everyone affected
you've learnt personally
you'll be doing different going forward

Stripe CEO Patrick Collison did this well in an email he sent to all employees in November 2022 when Stripe slashed 14% of their workforce.

As a side note: while being as transparent as you can is good, don’t feel the need to share a boatload of data and metrics. Such information may get leaked, and people may not be in the right frame of mind to receive such data when they are in an emotionally heightened state.

The form in which the message is delivered can be as important as the content. Ideally: in-person at a firm-wide town hall. Plan out the followup:

  • What messaging channels will be used?
  • Dissemination strategy: What time will messages be sent? Include clear step-by-step instructions sent via email, and same day 1:1 calls set up with HR and line managers.
  • Will internal and external messaging be different? Talk to your corporate communications team if you have one or get some external advice.
  • Be mindful of team members responsible for delivering the news - have they been given proper training, i.e. how to truly listen, empathize and manage emotional outbursts?

💡 Farah Primadini, a HR governance expert involved in GoTo’s layoffs stated: “The most common cases of disputes…[are a] result of poor communication, when employees are unclear as to why they are being laid off, feel that they are unheard or that the practices are unfair”.

2. Get Your Key Leadership Aligned

Even if not everyone agrees with your decisions, as a founder/CEO you need to help them understand how you got there and why this is the best way forward for the company. They can disagree, but they must commit. Going through a layoff will be exponentially harder if you don’t have buy-in from your leadership team. Ultimately, they are the people you trust to personally layoff their team members, so include them as early as you can. The worst thing is resentment and distrust breeding amongst your inner circle.

A well thought out process should involve weeks (not days!) of preparation with your leadership and Talent/ HR team. Loop in your trusted advisors as sounding boards. If you have the resources, get legal and compliance on standby to tackle worst-case scenarios.

3. Be as Generous as You Can with Support

It can be tempting to spend as little time and money on the exercise as possible. But set aside a budget to offer as much support as you can, and don’t rush the process. People will remember the extra mile you took to take care of them. Some examples of doing it right:

Company RIF What they provided - aside from fair severance[7]
Grab Singapore-based superapp scaleup operating in 8 countries Jun 2020:
- 5% cuts
- 360 terminated
- Grabbers allowed to keep laptops
- Alumni emails set up
- Outplacement services
- Staff encouraged to explore internal transitions
Glints Singapore-based HR-tech startup operating in 6 countries Dec 2022:
- 18% cuts
- 198 terminated
- Additional one month salary
- Extra 3 months health insurance
- Alumni support courses
Ruangguru An ed-tech startup in Indonesia Nov 2022:
- % undisclosed
- hundreds terminated
- Career counseling services
- Psychological services for all employees
- Partnered with recruitment agencies to help people find new jobs
- Created a 24/7 internal helpline, kept live for 90 days

💡 Ruangguru’s VP of HR, Kartika Akbaria: “Many former employees sent us thank you messages…expressing gratitude for the company’s ongoing support throughout their transition process.”

4. Understand Local Laws and Regulations

Ignorance is not an excuse. This is tricky for many startups operating in multiple countries across SEA. Labor laws in each impacted country need to be understood and followed through.

Recently in Singapore, Lazada came under fire for terminating 30% of its workforce without notifying the Manpower Ministry nor consulting its labor union, breaching Singaporean labor laws. Retrenched employees received unsatisfactory severance markedly lower than what was offered by Grab and Shopee. They were also bound to an extensive non-compete clause dubbed as unfair by many HR practitioners, as it covered not only direct competitors but also logistics and retail players such as NinjaVan and Amazon.

💡 HR expert Ian Liew: “Though the non-compete may not be against the law, it was “extremely unethical” and did not take the employees’ potential struggles into consideration.”[8]

5. Be Available, Be Human and Be Realistic

As much as you might feel like disappearing - this would be one of the worst times to do so. You may be feeling judged and vulnerable, but as a leader, you need to show up and put a brave face on to motivate your people. At the same time, be honest and don’t tell your employees that everything is going to be much better post-layoffs, or that it's a one and done exercise. At a smaller company (<100), offer designated office hours for anyone to come talk to you. At a larger company (>100), give employees access to decision makers. e.g., scheduling an additional town hall that includes an unfiltered Q&A session.

Most importantly, treat your employees with empathy. These are people who have dedicated a lot of effort, time and energy to support your vision. Many have families to feed and mortgages to pay. Be self-aware enough to know if you are not the best people leader - that’s okay. Make sure there are others on your team who have the emotional intelligence to support you.

Important: It is crucial that you get yourself the emotional and mental support you need. It’s the familiar adage - put your own oxygen mask on first.

6. Have a Clear Plan for Refocusing on Morale and Culture, Mission and Vision

You cannot afford to ignore the emotional well-being of remaining employees - many may feel survivors’ guilt. A Harvard Business School study reported that layoff survivors experienced a 20% decline in job performance[4].

This is one of the hardest challenges to navigate as a leader: how much space to give people time to process what has happened, while continuing to drive a high performance culture. Double down and invest in team building activities, regular 1-1s and check-ins with existing staff. Your employees need to feel safe and supported.

As a Re-cap, Here’s the Quick CHECK-LIST on What We’ve Discussed:

☐ 1. Be super clear and decisive in your communication.

☐ 2. Get your key leadership team aligned.

☐ 3. Be as generous as you can afford with support for the impacted.

☐ 4. Understand local laws to avoid negligence.

☐ 5. Make yourself available and empathetic in the aftermath.

☐ 6. Have a plan in place for rebuilding and refocusing on morale and mission.

It’s Done... Now What?

Layoffs and restructuring are a painful part of a founder’s journey that many will need to grapple with at some point, especially in the fast moving world of tech. Just remember, always treat your people with heart. In our next piece, we share some specific strategies around maintaining the mental wellness of yourself and your teams when handling tough situations.

Disclaimer: Views expressed here are our own and do not represent the views or opinions of Monk’s Hill Ventures and its affiliates. - Cheryl and Gessica


    1. Grab - Cheryl Liew
    2. Glints - Debby Laurentina
    3. Ruangguru - Kartika Akbaria


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