Methods to Talk Layoffs to Workers the Proper Manner
Following the “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting,” America’s workforce is grappling with a new era: “loud layoffs” – shocking reduction in force announcements (RIFs) that are taking employees by surprise and dominating media headlines.
Top global companies – including Twitter, PepsiCo, Buzzfeed, Morgan Stanley, Salesforce, and Amazon, just to name a few – have recently made headlines for mass layoffs.
While coverage of these layoffs has focused on job market ramifications and signs of economic recession, a more worrying trend for communication professionals is the lack of importance organizations are placing on internal communications today.
Media Coverage of RIFs is Troubling
Too often, thoughtfully planned communications appear absent from what is undoubtedly one of the most complex moments an organization will go through. We’ve all seen the troubling media coverage of companies communicating layoffs to employees – announcements that felt cold and inhuman or employees finding out they were laid off by losing IT access without notice. I’m sure no one can forget the infamous Zoom call in which the Better.com CEO laid off hundreds of employees.
While reductions in force are dreaded by leaders and communicators alike, employees deserve better than the callous layoffs making headlines in the past year. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. As communicators, how can we bring our expertise to the table to help organizations lead with greater empathy and humanity during layoffs?
5 Best Practices for Communicating Layoffs to Employees
We partner with clients often to help them manage their communications for organizational restructuring (including mass layoffs, site closures, and integrations) to mitigate declines in employee engagement and help protect their company’s reputation.
While layoffs are more common in some industries than others, having the ability to help organizations navigate the changes with empathy and respect is a sought-after communications skill.
Below we’ll cover the core strategies and best practices you can apply directly to your work, whether you sit in internal communications, human resources, corporate communications, or a blend of the above.
1. Map internal and external stakeholders
Communicating layoffs to employees is much broader than simply notifying those whose roles are impacted. It’s about those leaving as much as it is about those staying, in addition to an organization’s many external stakeholders. Start by mapping your internal stakeholders (e.g., senior leadership team, next level leaders, people managers, IT department, employees; in large organizations, don’t forget about other parts of the company that may be impacted by layoffs in your function).
Even if external stakeholder communication is not in your remit, create a base list (e.g., board of directors, media, local government) and template that senior leadership can input into to identify additional stakeholders. Once all data is collected, be sure to capture who is responsible for communicating to each stakeholder, and what materials will be provided to do so.
2. Plan your messaging
Planning a reduction in force announcement, or any large-scale communication, requires many core materials – typically key messages, internal and external FAQs, leader emails, press releases, and potentially presentation slides.
While the list of materials may feel daunting, start by drafting a master narrative that captures the changes that are happening, the rationale for change, and what employees can expect next. Gain alignment on this document with key stakeholders before proceeding to separate materials to save time and the need to cascade edits across multiple materials.
- Technology tip: Make the most of collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams, to avoid version control issues when you are developing messages and announcement communications. Create a private shared folder where key stakeholders can collaborate, review, and finalize documents.
3. Coordinate a run of show
Layoffs are not just one moment in time but need to be carefully orchestrated to ensure that stakeholders both internally and externally are notified appropriately. Consider the timing and cadence of your communication plan to ensure the right people are informed in the right way, at the right time, and in the right order.
Prioritize timing so that impacted employees are notified first via a 1:1 meeting with their manager/HR, versus a mass email (to the extent that you are able to based on the size of the organization and scope of layoffs). Immediately after notifications, bring employees together for an all-hands with leadership to address the announcement and have an open Q&A.
4. Lead with empathy
Layoffs are a traumatic experience for an organization, and leaders play a critical role in helping a company come out the other side. Help leaders understand the need to lead with empathy and humanity so those departing feel valued and respected, and employees who stay are confident in their future with your organization. Arm them with a succinct leader toolkit that includes tips on how to put themselves in the shoes of employees, assess their audiences, and plan their communications.
5. Look to the future
Help those who are staying remain engaged in the company culture and trusting of leadership. There are several ways to do this. First and most importantly is communicating a go-forward vision and giving employees a reason to stay that’s compelling, and provides hope and confidence in the organization.
The number one question remaining employees will have – beyond the potential for more layoffs – is why they should stay with the company. Ensure this messaging is clear in the post-announcement all-hands and among leaders so they can cascade it to their teams. Establish feedback channels (e.g., surveys, virtual coffees, leadership site visits, a dedicated Communications/HR inbox) where employees can continue to have open dialogue with leaders and submit their questions. Bring leaders together on a regular basis to debrief on feedback and put a communications plan in place to respond to employee concerns.
Learn from Companies Who Have Handled Layoffs with Respect
While recent months have been rife with headlines of companies communicating layoffs to employees poorly, there are leaders who have modeled best practices. If you find yourself preparing for this defining moment, consider taking a page out of these companies’ books:
- In the early months of the pandemic, Airbnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky sent a memo to staff confirming the vacation rental company would be reducing the size of its workforce. He offered clear rationale, demonstrated transparency around the process and support departing employees would receive, and provided clarity around what employees leaving and staying could expect as next steps.
- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella committed to a “thoughtful and transparent” process as the company begins to reduce its workforce by 10,000 jobs, and that Microsoft would “treat our people with dignity and respect,” providing clarity on the support impacted employees would receive.
- Wayfair CEO and Co-Founder Niraj Shah exemplified leadership accountability in his memo to employees announcing a reduction in force, writing, “I take responsibility for the impact this decision will have on the nearly 900 Wayfarians who will be told today they are no longer part of building our company’s future,” before sharing what changes were being made, what employees could expect next, and expressing gratitude for team members’ contributions.
Navigating layoffs is never easy – for those impacted, for those remaining, and for those who have to plan and deliver the news. And while we all hope to avoid workforce reductions, it is a moment that many of us will encounter in our careers.
As communicators, let’s leverage our seat at the table to ensure that any future layoff communications are handled with empathy, humanity, and respect. In these defining moments, your company’s reputation, employee engagement, and future are all at stake.
If you need help navigating RIFs or layoff communications, our team can help. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a time to discuss your need.
Jennifer Hirsch is Vice President at The Grossman Group and brings strategic communications experience, a problem-solving mindset, and zealous quality control to help clients achieve their business and communications goals. She has collaborated with Fortune 500 clients across the pharmaceutical, hospitality, technology, energy, manufacturing, and CPG industries to deliver internal communications solutions and counsel that help companies perform from the inside-out. Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn here.