Communicating Layoffs

by Rick on November 4, 2011

While the pundits are claiming the economy is getter better, I keep getting questions from a variety of organizations about handling communications for additional rounds of layoffs. Frankly, this is something everyone in communications should be thinking about before it happens.

Going through layoffs is a traumatic event. It is a clear statement that there is a problem; that the organization must change. Making a reorganization work will require support from every level of the organization. If you don’t incorporate building that support into your planning and communications strategy, you’ll create even more problems.

I’ve experienced layoffs from every angle. I’ve been let go, one of the people left behind, the boss who made the decision to let people go and the consultant helping clients go through the process. None of these roles is enjoyable but the two worst were being the boss who had to cut staff and being one of the people left to pick up the pieces. Seriously, I found it harder to be in the organization after the reductions.

Communications plays a vital role in making the best of a bad situation, and your internal workforce should be your first focus. Your team members are your most important and influential audience. If that’s not obvious, think about how your operating performance depends on their work. Then, think about the tremendous influence your employees have on what other people think about where they work. You simply can’t change an organization effectively without the support of the people who work there.

By now most organizations, unfortunately, know the right and wrong ways to handle layoffs. The announcement must be clear and complete. The people who are being let go need to be treated with compassion. The focus should be on the decision being a business necessity, not about individual personnel. While this part is painful, most companies try to make sure it gets done the right way.

But the communications effort and leadership cannot stop with the layoff. The real work begins the day after. An organization cannot go through this kind of trauma and just expect the remaining people to buckle down, buck up and get back to business as usual. While downsizing helps an organization get back on the right track by lowering costs, cutting expenses is never enough. The big challenge is getting your people through the disruption so they can adjust to the change and the job in front of them.
In many ways, the organization needs to build new relationships with its people.

Employees need to understand not only why the action was taken, but also what the plans are for a better future. Managers at all levels need to remember they are working with people who have just watched friends lose their job. You must be prepared for human reactions.

Above all, leaders need to be candid and realistic in their communications. They can’t pretend the layoffs didn’t happen or that it was no big deal. Anything that conveys a callous attitude will lead to resumes being polished by the people you need. Oh, and painting too bright a picture of the future will get the same result. You have to find the right balance for the people in your organization.

I don’t have a set of magic bullet points for this. No two organizations are the same and relying on another company’s good or bad practices isn’t necessarily going to help you do the best job for your organization. What I can give you are two basic thoughts to use during any crisis situation, and believe me, layoffs are a crisis situation.

First, remember the most important people are those who are or have been closest to your organization. Second, don’t ever forget you’re dealing with people, not just statistics.

It all comes down to treating people the way you would want to be treated, particularly in difficult situations.

P.S. Thanks to my friend and editor Jenifer Olson (@jenajean) for her help on this and every post on this blog.

  • Thank you for the nice mention, Rick! All my editing projects should be this easy and enjoyable! 🙂 I especially liked this post because it speaks to the aftermath of downsizing and planning for the important next steps. Jenifer

    • You’re welcome. The thanks was overdue. We need some more, better paying projects to work together on!

  • Mark D.

    “… don’t ever forget you’re dealing with people, not just statistics.” Really like that you made this point. We should include this in every comm plan, if only to remind the leaders/management that the decisions they make affect actual human beings.

  • Very smart stuff Rick. The two most overlooked areas of any layoff communication plan tend to be: 1. Internal communication for those who remain. 2. External communication for former employees, who need to be given every advantage to find a new job.

    I’ve always been amazed by how many employer/management teams forget that many of the remaining and departing personnel will retain friendships. So, it only makes sense that The the a departing employe can feel secure in a new position, the faster remaining employees will recover with a morale boost. Likewise, the employees who stay need to feel secure in their positions. And while difficult, restating a new vision for the company can help, assuming the company hasn’t cut into the bone.

    • I’m with you at being amazed that they don’t think about how relationships both outlast jobs and can hurt the performance of the people left behind.

      I’ve watched too many cut into the bone and that can be a fatal mistake. But the closer they get to the bone the more communications is a key to keeping the organization functioning.

      Thanks for coming by and leaving your thoughts!

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