Let’s start with the obvious: Layoffs are horrible.
There’s no soothing way to announce they’re happening, and no easy way to help employees move on from them. Most executives mean well, and try their best to show respect in this difficult situation.
However, thanks to news trickling out from Silicon Valley, we’ve learned some of our nation’s most innovative companies are developing new and inventive ways of … shooting themselves in both feet when it comes to some of their most sensitive responsibilities.
Take the co-working startup WeWork, for example. According to the Wall Street Journal, CEO Adam Neumann held an all-hands meeting a few weeks after cutting hundreds of employees. After somberly addressing the layoffs, Neumann ordered trays of tequila to be brought into the room for toasts and drinks, followed by Darryl McDaniels (of Run-DMC fame) taking the stage and performing “It’s Tricky.”
After all, nothing says, “Let’s move forward in a thoughtful and professional manner” like frat-house drinking games and 80s hip hop, amirite?
So, let’s take a deep breath and ground ourselves in the fundamentals for handling difficult news, like job elimination. 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 respectful and on-point.
Here are six key considerations:
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.
The news needs to come from a human being – whether that’s the CEO, head of HR or leadership team. To send an announcement from a general email box and hide behind a third-person voice (e.g., “the company has decided”) will look – quite frankly – callous and cowardly. The decision makers should take accountability for the message.
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.
Bad news should be communicated face-to-face whenever possible, allowing employees to see the leader’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 leader’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, or as a follow-up to the event.
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.
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