[Our Perspective by Michael Voss and Jennifer Rock]
Layoffs are tough on everyone involved, which might explain why layoff announcements typically suck. Good examples are almost impossible to find because vague, mechanical and heartless messages are the favored approach.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took a more human – and therefore noteworthy – angle when he announced 366 employees would be laid off as part of a significant company restructuring this week. His words are direct, compassionate and concise. And while we’d never suggest that he followed our blueprint for good layoff communication (below, originally posted Sept. 2014), it’s remarkable to see how of many of these principles he, his leadership team and his communications counsel employed. Check out his message, and compare it against our list below.
Note: Reports now say Twitter employees learned of their job loss not from the CEO’s message, but by discovering their company email accounts were turned off. Please see #1 below: “And – above all – bend over backwards to ensure your employees find out about workforce reductions from you – not the media or grapevine.” Please add “IT processes” to that list of bad alternative sources.
Five Elements of a Good Layoff Announcement
Let’s start with the obvious. There’s no such thing as a “good” layoff announcement. When jobs are eliminated, it’s terrible – for leaders delivering the news, employees leaving the company and the colleagues left behind. No matter how you rationalize the situation, employees see layoffs as bad news. And this presents a challenge for companies and communications professionals: How do you deliver bad news to employees?
Most executives have good intent. They want all employees to understand the circumstances that led to the current situation. They want to reassure their remaining employees and make them feel hopeful for the company’s future.
Unfortunately, these natural inclinations often translate to inordinately positive statements and extraneous content that obscure the primary message. See the July 2014 Microsoft memo as a recent example. We’re sure everyone involved had good intent. But employees should not have to read through three-quarters of a 1,100-word memo to learn that thousands of colleagues would soon lose their jobs.
To be fair, no matter how you approach this delicate task, you’ll never hear employees say, “Wow, that was a terrific layoff announcement.” But you can still ensure your communication is valuable and on-point, and there are five key considerations to help you do so:
Announce bad news with a communication you create for your employees – and your employees alone. Inevitably this announcement will go public, so adhere to company guidelines for confidentiality and use common sense, but plan to communicate with your investors and the media separately. Tailor the news for your employees, using your internal voice and communication principles as a guide. And – above all – bend over backwards to ensure your employees find out about workforce reductions from you, not the media or grapevine.
Your instinct may be to convey the news with a positive spin, describing the layoffs as a good thing in the long run. Erase this instinct, along with any attempt at humor or lightheartedness. It will make you look out-of-touch at best, alarmingly heartless at worst. Be respectful to the fact employees will be losing jobs and saying goodbye to friends. Never bury the lede, but instead start with a healthy dose of honesty, e.g., “Today is a difficult day.”
Layoff announcements are subject to multiple sources of input, approvals and review. Your company’s general counsel may have the final say on legal terminology, such as whether you call this a “layoff event” or a “role elimination.” But your employees are adults – treat them as such by developing a jargon-free, candid announcement. Fight for it if you must.
Bad news should be communicated face-to-face whenever possible, allowing employees to see your CEO’s facial expressions and hear a voice. If it’s not possible to get all of your employees into one room for a conversation, broadcast the remarks via a live webcast. For a second-best option, videotape your CEO’s announcement. An emailed memo should be your last choice – used when it’s the only realistic option for simultaneous distribution and receipt of the message.
As the creator or deliverer of bad news, you have already had time to digest the information and turn your focus to the future. But put yourself in your employees’ shoes: They are hearing this news for the first time. Give them time to process, mourn and think about the impacts. Tell them about the workforce reduction – and save the details of the company strategy and vision for another communication.
Keep in mind, any layoff announcement should be considered only one tactic in a comprehensive communication strategy. Leading up to the workforce reductions, you should have regular conversations with employees about business performance and the financial state of the company, allowing them to track along with decisions your senior execs are making. A strong annual communications strategy will keep any announcements about company activities anchored to the fiscal year plan.
Immediately after the layoff news, queue up a series of tactical communications, covering the logistics of employee departures, how teams will be re-organized and what work will be transferred.
After the last exit interview has been completed, the post-layoff communication plan kicks in, with a goal to re-energize, re-focus and rally employees around the company’s future. Your goal in this phase of communication is critical to your business: helping employees – and your company – move ahead.
Categories: Our Perspective