Tips for Communicating Layoffs During The Pandemic

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The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in companies, large and small, furloughing or laying off a significant portion of workers. In addition, some companies, attempting to stymie the flow of unemployment, have reduced employee salaries and decreased or eliminated freelance budgets.

Some local businesses, including daycare centers, restaurants, salons, and scores of others, have cut most, if not all, their staff.

The standard PR advice to communicate difficult news applies during the pandemic. “Be as honest and transparent as possible," says Leslie Wingo, CEO of multicultural agency Sanders Wingo.

Bearing Bad News

Many companies find themselves in uncharted territory. For example, iconic bookstore The Strand has never had to deal with layoffs. To communicate the news, “Lean into your values, both in decision-making and communications,” says Carreen Winters, chair, reputation management and chief strategy officer, MWW PR. “The values that helped you become a successful business...will serve you well now.”

Timing: Schedule your internal and external announcements carefully. Make sure HR informs first those losing their jobs/being furloughed/having salaries reduced etc. It's best to do that personally and privately. Emailing can seem too impersonal.

After that, PR should inform the organization. Be aware that in the digital era, news about layoffs or job cuts can make its way online quickly. Regardless, press should be informed after announcements are made internally.

Emotional Content

Tone: Remember compassion. It’s never easy to deliver difficult news, but it’s harder to be on the receiving end. While your message doesn’t need to be apologetic, consider the emotional impact on employees, especially given today's extremely difficult situation.

“No one is to blame for the business challenges with COVID-19,” says Gil Bashe, managing partner, global health at Finn Partners. “Kindness and thoughtfulness of what’s next for these people is part of being human…Leadership often starts with the thought, ‘What if this were me?’”

Adds Winters, “As leaders are making these difficult decisions, it is tempting to shield your employees from [your] emotions with an outdated notion that leaders must be stoic.”

Details: While the pandemic seems to make it obvious why cuts are necessary, it is important to lay out your reasoning. Providing context on other things the business is doing to reduce costs is one option.

“Use your values," Winters says, "to give people insight into how you made the difficult decisions."

Similarly, it helps to include benefits, such as continuing healthcare coverage, in communicating job cuts.

The Future: In addition, include information about light at the end of the tunnel, if possible. “This is the time to define the benchmarks that would prompt positive action: rehiring, reinstatement of reduced benefits, returns to full pay. Let people know now how you will return to more normal business, even if you can’t say when," Winters says.

But be realistic, especially in this highly fluid situation. "Sometimes candor is more important than making the bite sting less,” Bashe says. “With COVID-19 and the financial distress of the markets and economy, it’s hard to say when things will return to ‘normal,’" he says. Bashe adds, "When you set timelines, you better deliver. Otherwise, you're serving as a source of ‘truth’ falls to the bottom of the information pond like a rock.”

Layoff, Furlough or Pay Cut?

The nuances around whether an employee is furloughed, laid off or taking a pay cut may not matter to a particular staffer. However, “communications needs to work in lock-step with human resources to address employee needs and work within the law,” Bashe says.

Furloughs in the UK, for example, mean something different than they do in the US. As such, it is critical to lay out details for employees of what reductions entail. Discuss benefits and other details.

After The News

Following the cuts, focus on remaining employees. It’s critical to communicate with the survivors. Again, it is preferable to do this one-on-one. Ensure remaining employees know that their former colleagues will be treated well. In addition, inform them how the reduced headcount will impact their day-to-day responsibilities.

“For the rest of the organization, who will be grieving the exit of good colleagues and good friends, knowing what the company will be doing to help those individuals, and if there is a scenario where they may return, can be incredibly valuable,” Winters says.

PRNEWS editor Seth Arenstein contributed to this story.