It’s Not You, It’s Us: Communicating Layoffs & Other Internal Crises


Last month, Jerry Yang rounded out his tenure as CEO of Yahoo with a mass memo to employees that announced 1,500 layoffs. It wasn't the first e-mail of its kind to come from Yang, who had already downsized staffs throughout the company's worldwide offices, but it underscored the tough reality for businesses--a reality that has been shaped by widespread layoffs and, in turn, skyrocketing unemployment rates. But Yang's memo, excerpted below, also highlights the fine line that must be walked when communicating difficult decisions to employees. Did Yang succeed? "...saying goodbye to colleagues and friends is never easy...but as you all know, we must take actions to better perform in today's turbulent global economy. while we've found efficiencies in many parts of our business, laying off employees is unfortunately unavoidable. our difficult decision to let colleagues go reflects the changes we're having to make to better align costs with revenues - something businesses in virtually every sector are also having to do...to those who are leaving us, i extend my heartfelt thanks on behalf of yahoos everywhere - you will be missed. thanks, jerry." This note, which inevitably became public, was criticized by many for its alleged insensitivity and casualness. In Yang's signature style, he used all lower-case letters and expressed empathy to those affected. But news reports offered insights into the behind-the-scenes events that led up to layoff notifications, including employees whose mail slots were removed up to a week before the official announcement and accounts of staffers who were let go promptly after they trained their replacements. Of course, the Yahoo scenario--at least in the context of botched layoff communications--seems to be the rule, not the exception. But given the ubiquity of staff cuts in today's economy, communications and human resources executives must be ready to deliver internal news with polished strategies and professionalism. "Effective communication is always important, but never more so than in turbulent times," says Peter Ashley, president of LimeStreet Consulting. "Tough times exacerbate and magnify everyday communication challenges. General fear and anxiety are heightened, skepticism increases about company motives and the grapevine becomes potentially destructive." To manage these challenges and facilitate smooth employee communications during a downturn, executives should consider the following strategies. *Get executive support from the beginning. Chances are, if the internal crisis needing to be communicated involves layoffs, the mandate came from above. However, Ashley says, "If leadership isn't at the table, the employee communications will fail." Communications and HR executives might be the conduits of the announcements, but the actual bad news should come straight from the horse's mouth--that is, the top dog at the organization. Having the second-in-command deliver the proverbial pink slip is tacky and implies cowardice on the part of the company's leadership. If you have to downsize your staff, suck it up and give them the respect they deserve. Regardless of the internal crisis, though, Levick Strategic Communications senior vice president David Bartlett recommends asking yourself the following questions to gauge the C-suite's stance on employee communications: Are your senior executives ready to communicate with employees in a crisis? Do they consider internal communication an opportunity or a chore? Then, Bartlett says, "Help them prepare efficiently and focus their messages." *Don't beat around the bush. When communicating any bad news/internal crisis, being direct and transparent is critical. Generally speaking, Ashley's recommendations apply to most situations: Invite stakeholder representatives to join communications planning efforts. Conduct surveys and/or focus groups to find out how employees prefer to receive sensitive information. Organize these focus groups by asking managers to recommend outspoken teammates, as these individuals will give you the most genuine responses. These steps should be taken by all organizations, given the current economic crisis, as no one is immune to potential internal turmoil, even if it's smooth sailing now. "Don't wait for a crisis to communicate," Bartlett says. "Make sure employees know the real story first." According to Beth Haiken, senior vice president of Ogilvy PR Worldwide, being prepared by knowing where your employees and other stakeholders stand helps meet organizational goals when it counts. Haiken identifies the relevant goals as: Guarding credibility Maintaining productivity Retaining high performers Emerging ready for action Then, Ashley says, when it's time to make the announcement, whatever it may be, "Don't bury the lead. Forget the whitewash, and avoid corporate jargon like 'we're facing headwinds.' Be candid and direct." *Know that employees are already on high alert. The economic downturn has raised the red flag for all employees and few people feel secure in their jobs. This enhances the challenges felt by communications executives, who must assuage fears without being hypocritical (there is nothing worse than insisting that everything is fine and then turning around and laying off employees). Don't fall victim to the adage that no news is good news. "Help employees get a better understanding of their role in the corporate infrastructure. Dial down the 'us against them' mind-set," Haiken says. "Everyone's antennae are fine- tuned, so the grapevine will function at warp speed. Everything you say inside will end up outside, and not everyone will end up happy." Haiken's last point is reiterated by the Yahoo example, as the blogs and news outlets that covered the downsizing received hundreds of tips and insider accounts from those within the company's hallowed walls. *"Employee train" executives. We've all heard of media training, but executives should also be schooled in how to communicate with their most important stakeholder group: employees. When delivering messages that don't have a happy ending, Haiken highlights the following key tactics for staying on course: Don't change your body language. Explain the company's actions. If you can't explain, explain why you can't explain. Don't make promises you may not be able to keep. *Focus on the future. By no means are internal crises easy to communicate, especially when they involve layoffs. But it is essential that executives act with courage, character and responsibility when delivering tough news, even if it means they are the "bad guy." "Effective internal communications is about solutions, not problems," Bartlett says. "It's about what matters to employees--not what matters to you." PRN CONTACTS: Peter Ashley, peter.ashley@limestreet.com; David Bartlett, dbartlett@levick.com; Beth Haiken, beth.haiken@ogilvypr.com Layoff Communications Do's And Don'ts Do: Consider knowledge transfer and corporate interests Check the calendar Plan logistics Offer an explanation Focus on the survivors Think about security and create a feedback loop Don't: Disrespect the hierarchy Mislead people Apologize Let down your defenses Ignore the details Forget your other stakeholders Source: Beth Haiken, Senior Vice President, Ogilvy PR Worldwide

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