Recession Communications: Managing Employee Relations While Downsizing


Often when people talk about how to communicate layoffs, what they're thinking is, "What do I say to the people I have to let go?" That's understandable--layoffs are stressful. But before getting into the weeds, it's important to step back and think about the overarching goals. What are you trying to accomplish? First, that your company and its management remain credible--with employees and with other constituencies, from investors to regulators to community leaders. Second, that you are able to retain and if necessary attract top talent And third, that when the downturn's over, the company not only will have survived, but will be ready to stake out a leadership position. If these are your goals, as important as what you say to those you are letting go is what you say to the employees who are staying and to those other constituents whose support will be needed for the company to survive and prosper. Communicating layoffs is never fun, but there is an upside--an opportunity to refocus on a shared mission and commit to a shared vision for future. Realities In a recessionary environment, everything management does or says will be dissected and parsed out within an inch of its life and within moments of happening. The key realities that define the environment in which you'll be communicating are: Everyone's antennae are fine-tuned. Any change to your usual behavior (shutting a door when you usually keep it open; coming in earlier than usual) will be analyzed for significance. The grapevine will function at warp speed. If a team of investment bankers shows up for due diligence, the news that there are "suits on three" will circulate before they've had time to loosen their ties. Everything you say "inside" will end up "outside." The memo you give to your employees will end up in the local paper or on a blog; the speech the CEO gives at the all- employee meeting will end up on YouTube. Taken together, these mean that authenticity and consistency are key. The fact is, no matter how good your communication strategy and content are, not everyone will end up happy. Your goal is to make sure that you don't give employees more reasons to be unhappy than they already have through inept or ineffective communication. Crafting The Message Communications executives talk a lot about company missions and how to ensure employees understand them and are committed to supporting them. Explanation, of course, is crucial in achieving this goal, and of course in an ideal world any employee of any company should be able to tell you: What do we do? Why do we do it? Who are our customers? How do we make money? How do we define success? How do I contribute to that success? An employee who can answer these questions is likely to be committed to helping his or her company succeed. During a layoff, communication is even more important. Employees who are leaving and those who are staying need to know some of the same things but for very different reasons, and those who are staying need additional information to help them make the transition from crisis back to productivity. The table below outlines the questions you'll need to address, the answers you should be prepared to give and what you're hoping to achieve. Handled with intelligence and decency, communicating layoffs doesn't have to be a disaster. By preparing well, anticipating concerns and communicating honestly about why your company is taking this action and what it believes it will accomplish by doing so, you can use this occasion to create a shared sense of purpose and commitment. PRN CONTACT: This article was written by Beth Haiken, a senior vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. It will appear in the soon-to-be-published PR News Employee Communications Guidebook. For more information on PR News' series of guidebooks, visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/. Key Tactics For Downsizing Communicate separately with those who will be going/staying: They need some of the same information but have different concerns, and they will react very differently to the news. Double-check the calendar: Is there an internal or external calendar event that could undermine your communication? Announcing layoffs on "take your children to work" day or the day you have local charities in for a meet-and-greet calls into question your message that you know what you're doing. Don't apologize: It will ring false. You're not sorry; by doing this you're saving the company and--let's face it--your own job. The company isn't sorry; it's doing what it has to do. It is, however, appropriate to express regret: "We're very disappointed that our business has been so badly affected." Don't make promises you may not be able to keep: "Downturn" is another word for "fast changing environment." Be proactive: Once you've informed employees, reach out to other constituencies who are likely to hear this news and be disappointed--media, local officials, community partners, regulators and legislators--and tell your own story before someone tells it for you. WORD FOR WORD: A ROADMAP TO SMOOTHER DOWNSIZING Question Answer Desired Understanding - Going Desired Understanding - ?Staying Desired Outcome Why are we doing this? Revenue shortfalls, external market conditions, shrinking demand for products & services, etc. "I may not like it, but I understand why this is happening and that it's not personal." "I may not like it, but I understand that these actions are necessary." Potential anger and survivors' guilt is assuaged Are we doing it honorably? We are providing [COBRA, job fairs, outplacement, severance, advance notice]. "I understand that the company is doing what it can for us and doing more than it has to." "At least we are treating people with respect --and if ultimately this happens to me I know I will also be treated with respect." Employee trust is strengthened Are we going to do it again --is my job safe now? "What I can tell you is..." NA "I understand that there are no guarantees but I appreciate the honesty of the response and understand that I have a role in this." Employee trust is strengthened What's next? Will we survive? Should I be looking elsewhere? "We have a plan." NA "I understand how we will get out of this and I understand what I need to do. I'll stick around." Shared strategy leads to shared commitment Source: Beth Haiken

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