Layoff communication principles

I have witnessed several layoffs in my career. Unfortunately, I can recall one or two scenarios that exemplify ‘what not to do’. It’s an unpleasant experience for everyone involved but if done tactfully, it can help your company recover relatively unscathed following layoffs. I have learned that:

  • you can never over-communicate during downsizing.
  • a company should communicate the facts as honestly as it can and with great compassion.
  • People must walk away from meetings and one-on-one discussions with the feeling that decisions were legitimate and that they were treated fairly and with dignity.
  • Once the downsizing has been complete, it’s time to re-build morale with employees who are still with the organization and reinforce daily, in a positive and genuine manner, the vision, mission, and excitement of moving forward with a leaner team. Make plans to provide rewards and recognition and hold company-sponsored events that re-build team spirit.

This excerpt below summarizes more tips and considerations that your communication team might want to consider if it’s in the unenviable position of developing and implementing layoff communications.

LAYOFF COMMUNICATION PRINCIPLES

How companies convey this awful news reflects their values. Every situation is unique, but here are communication guidelines that I hope you never need.

Avoid a “bolt from the blue.” Regularly brief employees on the condition of your business so that a cutback does not blindside them. A vice president I know did such a good job communicating that he got a standing ovation when he announced a plant closing. Employees wanted him to know they appreciated his efforts to keep them in the loop.

Scrupulously plan. Plot every step of a closing or layoff announcement like a complex military maneuver. The order of “battle” is crucial.

Tell supervisors first. Stunned personnel may not remember all you say and will later grill their supervisors for clarification. Let supervisors know what you know so they can repeat the important information. They can even participate in notification planning. You’ll need their support.

Communicate fast. Since word will rocket after the first notifications begin, tell employees quickly to minimize the period of uncertainty. Compress time.

Notify personally. Employees should hear it in person from a manager and not via outsiders, email, telephone, mail, or the media. This can be difficult with multiple shifts spread over several days and word spreading. Do your best so that employees know you tried hard to tell them early.

Tell it as though their mother has died. Plant closings and layoffs are life altering, so pass the word with the same sensitivity of conveying news of a death.

Immediately give employees a senior official to yell at or cry with. I will never forget the face of an executive who let person after person ventilate to him after they were fired. He was a wreck, but felt it his duty to be available. Employees will tell the community how you treated them.

Provide all the transition benefits you can afford. The only reasonably good news you can offer is how the company will help employees move on. Transition assistance is humane and gives you something constructive to say.

Put benefits in writing. Traumatized people may not remember all you said, so give them a written explanation of company actions on their behalf.

Prepare messages and Q&A’s. Draft key messages about the layoff or closing. They will be the outline for comments in person, meetings, news interviews, and news releases. Brainstorm worst-case questions that internal (including employees) and external audiences might ask and answer them. Involve the management team to avoid overlooking a thorny issue.

Notify stakeholders before telling the media. List all who should hear about the cuts directly from you and contact them. They will appreciate it and may provide essential support.

Tell everyone the same story. Give employees, customers, suppliers, government officials, analysts and the news media – all audiences – essentially the same information. Inconsistencies hurt credibility.

Make promises you can keep. Survivors of mass layoffs will want to know about future cuts. If no layoffs are planned, say so, but stress that the future cannot be foreseen or guaranteed.

Expect the unexpected. Closings and layoffs, like all crises, are full of uncertainty. You are dealing with human beings and a fast-moving grapevine. Adapt! Do your best so that your actions will be perceived as honorable and well-meaning.

Take care of the survivors. Treat them with the same respect, courtesy, and speed of notification as those who are fired. Don’t leave them hanging, wondering about their status or your appreciation of them. After all, you will need them to keep the business running.

A good news release is important, but statements of spokespersons often have more impact. A good format for the release is a) brief statements of what is happening and why, b) expression of concern for employees and what will be done in their behalf, c) more detail on why the action is needed, and d) a one paragraph description of the company. However, sympathetic, employee-oriented comments by spokespeople often have more impact and are be perceived as more genuine by the press and other important audiences.

By Rick Amme, President of Amme & Associates, a media/crisis communications company in North Carolina.

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