Layoffs are on the tips of many tongues when talking about the workplace these days. Whether it’s the significant layoffs at Meta underpinned by a perceived lack of leadership or the shutdown of Buzzfeed News late last week, job cuts in the name of improved organizational health are a hot topic. But make no mistake, there’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate about layoffs — whether that’s to the people who are losing their jobs or those that remain at the organization afterward.
Transparency as the foundation
When a layoff does happen, don’t beat around the bush — be direct. Take the example of Meta, who told employees that layoffs would happen in rounds in the future, and then left employees to twist in the wind, wondering about their fate for weeks. It’s important to tell both affected employees and those who remain at the company after the fact the reasoning behind the decision.
“As a communicator, it’s imperative to be as transparent as you possibly can about why the organization had to take this step,” George Haj, president at Haj Media said. But he also stated that in far too many cases, those relating the news of layoffs to affected and remaining employees say many words with little meaning.
“Too often companies will spew out a bunch of nonsense that doesn’t really say why they’re undertaking the layoffs in the first place. If at all possible, communicators should walk through the rationale behind the process for everyone so that there’s maximum clarity.”
Leadership matters — as does how the news is broken
When an organization has to conduct a layoff, both laid-off employees and those left in the aftermath will want answers from their leaders. But the level of tact that leaders take in communicating these layoffs goes a long way toward maintaining goodwill and building cultural unity.
Leaders also need to think about the manner in which they tell the organization about the layoffs. Take the cautionary tale of Better.com, in which the company’s CEO relayed the news of job cuts over a massive Zoom call. It’s not just what’s said — but also how it’s said — that matters when breaking the news.
“You really need to understand the modality in which you’re going to lay people off and determine the most compassionate way to do so,” said Dr. Kerry O’Grady, associate professor of public relations and corporate communications and PR consultant. “If you have to lay people off remotely, be sure to give people immediate access to you (the communicator) or their manager or take the time to do individual conversations.”
Comms leaders need to pay special attention to those that remain after the layoff, too — not doing so risks ignoring their humanity and dismissing their reaction to major upheaval occurring around them, potentially creating a poisonous work culture.
“Survivor’s guilt is going to happen in the wake of a layoff — it just is,” O’Grady said. “Telling remaining employees just to dive back into their work without answering questions about changes to the org chart or responsibilities isn’t the way to go.”
O’Grady also emphasized the importance of allowing people to feel their emotions following a layoff.
“If people are going to be angry or anxious following a layoff, leaders should allow them to have those feelings,” she said. “Good comms leaders should possess the empathy to be supportive of their employees even in the hardest times, and sometimes that means allowing them to process in their own ways.”
Choosing the right words
During layoffs, comms leaders need to be extremely selective with their word choice. Employees are going to want answers right away, whether they’re affected or not. Assuming that the content of any internal employee memos will potentially be shared publicly, be sure to choose empathetic words that explain the rationale and fallout of the layoff. This can and should include what went wrong and what your organization has learned during the process.
Atlassian’s recent memo on its layoffs is often celebrated among communicators as a textbook example of how to do this right, as it outlines everything from severance to laptop return policies and the economic conditions that led to the job cuts. Comms leaders should strive to communicate clearly and with a deft touch, as negative perception could impact employee attraction and retention.
“I think that support for laid-off employees with either resumé help, severance packages, or other tangible support is a big plus,” Haj said. “When employees are communicated to with respect, it’ll show both internally and externally.”
O’Grady added that during tough times, every employee should be celebrated for their contributions to the organization.
“It might be more comfortable just to ignore the situation, but comms leaders should acknowledge everyone’s impacts on the team, even those who are laid off. People’s individuality and worth should be a top priority.”
Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.