Layoffs and Communication: What NOT to Do

how to communicate layoffs

With talk everywhere of a possible recession and economic instability around the globe, corporate layoff announcements seem more prevalent. Several days ago, Ford confirmed cutting 3,000 jobs. Apple laid off around 100 recruiters as it prepared for a hiring slowdown. Wayfair reported a loss of 870 jobs as it reacts to declining sales. 

Even as the common adage seems to be “no one wants to work anymore” as many retail and hospitality sectors suffer from understaffing, many corporate entities anticipate staff cuts. According to a recent survey by PwC, “50% of firms are anticipating a reduction in overall headcount, while 52% foresee instituting a hiring freeze.”

How a company handles the communications of a layoff can have an impact not only on the current workforce and future employees, but its overall reputation as well. And many companies are not so well handling layoffs. Leaders claim they believe in transparency and empathy, but they aren’t always showing it. 

Take the story of Braden Wallake, the 32-year-old CEO of HyperSocial. He went viral after posting a picture of himself crying on LinkedIn after firing several employees. The public did not embrace Wallake’s distress as he probably had hoped. This is only one of many ways communicating layoffs can go terribly wrong. 

“No matter how hard this may be for those in charge, it is far harder for those losing their employment,” says Anne Green, principal and managing director, G&S Business Communications.

Internal Communications: Respect, Timing and Technology

News travels fast, so the top priority during a layoff should be the employees—which should be obvious, but does not always the way it plays out. Cat Colella-Graham, employee experience leader, says leading with empathy and respect can honor the privacy and mental wellbeing of those affected. 

“I always recommend humanizing through town halls, then small groups led by managers with manager guidance,” she says. “Don't go straight to drafting the email. State the what, why and what's next, and leave room for Q&A. And if you don't have the answer, say that.”  

Green notes that while time is always of the essence during such news, delivering it quickly is not always the best option. Leave time for a dialogue between employees and the employer. 

“Remember that the most 'efficient' or 'expedient' way to approach layoffs is often not the best way when it comes to communications,” Green says. “Seek to have one-to-one conversations with each person being let go, unless the scale is such that this is operationally impossible.” 

Speaking to people as individuals can cement respect due to them, and help to remind employees that it is not their fault the layoff is happening. 

Rick Lyke, executive vice president and managing director of public relations and public affairs at Mower, reminds communicators to not use technology as a crutch during a difficult news delivery. 

“Things are complicated in today’s remote work world,” Lyke says. “Many people have been hired via Zoom calls, so it can almost feel natural to do job cuts via video call. However, it’s important that layoffs be handled humanely and with respect to the staff members.”

Handling External Communications During Layoffs

Identifying stakeholders, preparing leaders and fielding media inquiries will certainly keep communicators busy after a layoff announcement. Developing clear, proper messaging for these audiences becomes essential very quickly. 

“The two things every stakeholder wants to know is, whether there more layoffs to come, and what the organization will do to retain key talent/move past this phase,” Colella-Graham says. 

When identifying stakeholders, be sure to acknowledge their intersectionality, and what that message will mean to them on various levels. Personalization can help. 

“An employee could be your customer; a customer may be your client,” Colella-Graham continues. “Less is more with communicating externally on a mass level, but personalizing with individual calls, and leading with empathy matter.”

Green says shrouding the layoff in secrecy and remaining tight-lipped about details will not help any stakeholders during this time. Building a thoughtful plan for sharing what is to come with not only the executive leaders, but the next layers of management, can go a long way toward cementing reputation within the company and beyond. 

“Some organizations over-index toward secrecy—keeping planned reductions among only a small group of senior leaders until the eleventh hour,” she says. “Your key next generation of leaders are likely the ones closest to the individuals and teams impacted by these decisions. And they certainly will be the ones asked about it in the aftermath of a layoff. Bring them in earlier, and give them time to absorb what will happen and to ask tough questions.”

Those tough questions can prepare even the most vigilant PR teams for public scrutiny. 

Preparing Leadership

No CEO wants to be seen as the bad guy during a period of layoffs. But, remember the executive who laid off 900 employees via Zoom back in 2021? No one forgot that. Colella-Graham says leaders need to be prepared to own their role in layoffs, which can often be a missed opportunity, and helps with transparency.  

“Perhaps they were overly confident in the market, didn't make course corrections soon enough, or this was long planned as part of an organizational change to pivot from a certain sector,” she says. Either way, leaders should own the decision. "They ought to be able to share the what, why and what's next.”

Green notes the importance of leaders leaving their egos at the door, as a layoff impacts so many. Communicators should work with leaders to hone their messaging, which should include empathy, but also focus on the needs of those suffering in the decision. Crying on LinkedIn will not help. As mentioned earlier, remind leaders that it is not about them. 

“Do not overplay the impact on you as a leader,” Green says. “Yes, it is very hard for most leaders to make the choice to let people go. Rare is the leader who is not torn over this decision or who is not emotionally impacted on a personal level. In sharing this news, though, do not make it about you.” 

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her @buffalogal