Sad Businessman

A Candid Look at How Executives Make Layoff Decisions

No one likes talking about layoffs.

But given the current economic volatility, many leaders have been forced to have these difficult discussions.

Instead of ignoring this reality, we decided to face it head on by taking a candid look at how many executives make layoff decisions.

Below, you’ll find insights from Holly Yang, whose over 25 years of experience includes:

  • Partner at On the Point Marketing and YARO
  • Managing Director and Chief Marketing Officer at Cushman & Wakefield — Asia Pacific
  • International Director, Marketing, Sales Enablement and Communications at JLL

Here’s what she had to say:

“During the global financial crisis, I had to lay off 22 people across APAC,” she explained. “It was probably the worst month of my career. But as a leader, you have to make decisions about who stays and who goes and you need to consider who can help you navigate the current, and future, business climate.”

During that time, she found four primary characteristics that she considered when making those types of decisions.


When organizations reduce their headcount, they often look to the employees who remain to pick up the slack and accomplish some of the tasks their former colleagues handled.

“You look for people who are going to weather the storm and be adaptable in the next phase,” Holly said. “People who have skills and potential that go beyond their current remits.”

Meaning those who have a narrow skillset are more vulnerable to layoffs.

“The people who get laid off are generally the ones who are more pigeonholed in their role,” Holly explained. “They’re not as versatile, not as adaptable.”


In a similar vein, leaders look for employees who understand that things need to change and are eager to take on new tasks, projects, and responsibilities.

“I was just counseling a young woman about this. Her company is laying off a significant number of people,” Holly said. “She is new to the team and her first task has been to implement their CRM platform. However, the company also needs to roll it out to other teams, where their CRM leads were let go. I told her to put her hand up to help with the rollout across all teams, even though it’s outside of her remit. The CRM platform is a key initiative given the current economic environment and the leadership need to get it done. By being willing to help the company when and where it needs to move the needle, she will make herself highly valuable.

“She needs to do this now because her goal should be to still be at the company 12 months from now. She’ll be a key asset to them because she’ll be the only one who knows how to work their platform. Then when things normalize, she can focus on the original reason for joining that team and focus on her goal of becoming a broker.

“You have to be willing to step in where you see the company has a need,” Holly added. “Get out there, put your hand up, and go for it. Leaders will look to people who can and will help as they have an enormous task to navigate the business through the abyss. Don’t be the one to complain about reduced hours or a pay cut. Be the one who takes it all in stride, knowing it’s temporary, and focus on being a key asset on the team.”

Professional aptitude

Another key factor in layoff decisions is how much employees are focused on their professional development and what is their ‘stretch.’ There is a need to look at future potential, as when the business turns, you will need people with new skills, agility, and potential.

Those that take advantage of down time to acquire new skills can make themselves more valuable. When you see employees adding relevant skills, offering to help, and showing effort, you want to keep them.

“Anyone can further their professional development,” Holly said. “There are unlimited ways to do this. Do it and make sure you broadcast your initiative with your manager, show your accomplishments on LinkedIn, etc. You need to broadcast your initiative.

“For example, if you’re in marketing, now is a great time to get certified on applications like Google Analytics,” she added. “Especially because right now you’re going to need digital savvy as a marketer. And there’s so much available online.”

You can also take advantage of professional development opportunities at your firm.

“When I worked at Colliers, they had Colliers University,” Holly said. “It’s all organized, online training modules featuring various professionals throughout Colliers who are experts in their fields. It is a wealth of information. If your firm offers something like that, now is the time to take advantage of it.”

Her current company — YARO — also provides online learning opportunities.

“We’ve been doing these mini-sessions,” Holly explained. “They’re free and on Zoom. We bring in senior, seasoned leaders from various industries to talk about their viewpoint on surviving a black swan and what advice they have for professionals. There are many of these free sessions available from a multitude of sources.”

But the path you choose, Holly noted, is less important than getting started.

“There’s so many avenues for you to go and pull information from,” she said. “You just need to take the initiative to educate yourself.”

As for what skills brokers should focus on, Holly refers to a recent blog post featuring Rethink CEO Vijay Mehra.

“He nailed it,” she said. “If I was a broker, I’d work every day on the three things he mentioned — collecting and leveraging data, looking for ways to negotiate around obstacles, and old-fashioned picking up the phone.”

Personal brand

Another factor leaders consider when making layoff decisions — though perhaps not consciously — is an employee’s personal brand.

“Your personal brand is how you represent yourself, how you’re coming across,” Holly explained. “A lot of people don’t think about that. They don’t self-reflect enough.”

By focusing on your personal brand inside and outside your organization, you can ensure you’re projecting the right image and encourage leaders to see you as the type of person they want on their team.

“It’s uncomfortable for people to think of themselves as a brand, but it can be very valuable,” Holly said. “You have to ask yourself: What do you stand for? What are you good at? What differentiates you? How do you communicate and amplify that?

“You have to manage how people see you, because if you don’t control that conversation, somebody else will,” Holly added. “You need to position yourself in a way that plays to your strength, and you need to build that professional brand internally and externally. That will really put you a step ahead. It’s not enough to keep your head down and work hard. And, if you do end up getting laid off, having your external brand established will be a great help in finding your next role.

“Add brand to versatility, attitude, and professional aptitude, and you can best position yourself when the tough decisions need to be made.”