3 Ways to Fail at Communicating Layoffs

HR, Outplacement, Tips

Giving bad news is never easy. However, for business leaders and HR professionals, effectively delivering tough news to your workforce is a part of the job. And there is perhaps no harder news to give than that of layoffs.  

We’ve seen a lot of headline layoffs this year, with both the coal and tech industry in particular experiencing more layoffs than the year before. The recent rise in layoffs among tech startups triggered increased speculation that the tech bubble has finally reached its breaking point.

With VCs recommending companies to adopt belt-tightening measures, we may expect to see more announcements of involuntary terminations from tech companies in the near future. If you too are preparing to give this type of notice to one or many employees, below are the three most common mistakes to avoid when conveying the news.

Related: 3 Costliest Offboarding Mistakes


Speaker

Ramble On And On… And On…

“Avoid alienating the reader in the opening paragraph, but get to the bad news quickly.”

Ken O’Quinn, Corporate Writing Coach

This is not the time to pad your difficult news with filler content in hopes of softening the blow. For example, refrain from leading the talk with the company’s latest ambitious business strategy or plans for a new product line. Prefacing tough news with seemingly “good” news could muddle the message and make it appear as if the news of workforce cuts are a footnote to other company news. Moreover, punctuating “good” news with the news of layoffs ends the entire message on a down note.

Instead, get to the point quickly and address the issue head on. If there is “good” or relevant news directly connected to the layoffs that will impact workers immediately–for example, increased severance packages or the offer of outplacement services–then be sure to mention these benefits and any necessary next steps. Bottom line: Your employees are adults. Best to be direct and not sugarcoat.  

Use lots of flowery words

“Flowery or long answers don’t help. Use short answers and stick to the facts. People are generally smarter than executives give them credit for. So, if business conditions are bad, say that.”

Bill Rosenthal, CEO of a Corporate Communications Firm

In 2014, Microsoft announced the largest layoff in its history in 2014–which impacted 14% of its global workforce, then equal to about 18,000 employees–the media scrutinized the written memo through which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced details of the labor cuts.

One critique of the memo was its use of vocabulary like “work simplification,” “integration synergies,” and “strategic alignment” to pave a roundabout way to announce the layoffs. Again, being honest and direct are key.

communicating layoffs

Contradict Yourself

“Uniformity of messages is imperative…Layoffs are situations where people are more likely to have an opinion, and they’ll express it.”

Gene Grabowski, Corporate Communications Strategist

These difficult moments are character-building for businesses. They reveal defining characteristics, or lack thereof, in a company’s leadership–one of which is poise under pressure. Without a process in place, these crucial moments can can backfire triggering unintended meaning that can twist under the pressure of public opinion.

Negativity can spread quickly, and perhaps most susceptible to this negativity are the employees who remain with the company and experience varying emotions, from resentment to guilt of surviving the layoff. Mistakes made in communicating layoffs, if left unaddressed, can snowball into low employee morale and significantly challenge employee retention.

Related: Webinar – 3 Keys to Protecting Your Brand in a Downsize: Lessons from the Tech Industry

Keys to Communicating a Reduction in Force

The majority of experts agree that preparing a clear and consistent message, practicing the delivery of that message aloud, and providing a channel for feedback post-announcement are best practices worth adopting. Whether done in writing, or in person, communicating bad news truly requires soft skills where maintaining empathy, patience, and calm are vital to success.

Solutions & Additional Resources

5 Tips For Delivering Bad News

More advice on how to communicate well under pressure, including techniques straight from the medical field used by doctors everyday.

What is Outplacement?

Learn more about the advantages of offering a universal outplacement benefit to your employees, and its lasting impact on employer brand.

The RIF Checklist

Don’t miss a step. Download our Reduction-In-Force Checklist to evaluate and build upon your current offboarding process.

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