The dos and don’ts of layoff comms

There are some good lessons from Spotify’s recent announcement — others, not as much.

Earlier this week, Spotify announced that it was cutting 17% of its workforce, with around 1,500 people impacted. While layoffs are an unfortunate reality today, in part due to the pullback of the post-pandemic hiring bonanza and to more contemporary economic pressure on employers, it’s not what Spotify did that’s of note — it’s how the organization handled it.

In the layoff announcement memo, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek laid out the details of the layoff, including the reasoning behind the decision, and importantly, what provisions were set aside by those impacted by the job cuts. The memo stated that affected employees would receive approximately five months of severance, full healthcare coverage during the severance period, services such as immigration support for employees who worked for Spotify on visas, and outplacement support to help employees find new jobs.

The best scenario for a layoff is obviously that it doesn’t have to happen in the first place. But when tough decisions are made, executives must know what to say and how to get it across to ensure that it is approached with empathy and professionalism and that employees who are not let go remain productive and confident in their own job security.

Spotify’s announcement is about as well done as a layoff announcement can get. It’s clear in stating why the decision was made, it’s gracious to the employees impacted in both words and actions and it provides some temporary fallbacks for those laid off. That’s the outline of a top-flight comms strategy right there, one in which communications pros are in the ear of leaders and can ensure that the right things are said and done.

But unfortunately, not every layoff announcement is done with such grace. Sometimes communicators might not have the same level of influence on or dialog with executive comms, and that’s a formula for things to trend in a less-than-ideal fashion.

The dos

It can be tempting for those at the higher levels of an organization to talk about making the financials make sense in the long run, thus requiring jobs to be cut. That’s fine, but it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that the jobs that are lost are occupied by people — people with families, homes, interests and feelings. Comms can go a long way toward ensuring that their humanity is respected during a layoff by reiterating gratitude and understanding in messaging surrounding the decision.

Earlier this year, we wrote a piece on how to conduct layoff comms the right way if they need to happen. The biggest takeaways were that leaders need to play a major role, transparency is key, and comms needs to step in and ensure that the right words are said during such a challenging time.

Let’s run the Spotify announcement through that impromptu rubric:

  • Ek’s announcement dove into the details of the financial growth issues in the greater environment explained his thought process, and how it would affect the company. Tick one box for transparency.
  • The message was also compassionate and complimentary to those affected. Another point, this time for saying the right things.
  • Finally, with the message coming directly from Ek, leaders stepped up and owned the decision.

Good marks all around.

It’s clear that the communications department at Spotify works hand-in-hand with executive leadership on smart communications. It’s that sort of foresight and instinct that can leave organizations emerging from tough times like a layoff looking positive in both the eyes of the public and the employee base. This stems from comms getting and maintaining all-important seat at the table with leadership when it comes to discussing the impact of big decisions.

The don’ts

Next, let’s briefly touch on what not to do.

When these layoffs happen, which they unfortunately sometimes will, that’s not the time for leadership to hide away and not comment. That can lead to angry responses from staffers and even unions, such as the fiery statement the Vox Media Union released following news earlier this week that jobs would be cut just ahead of the holidays. People look to leaders when these decisions are made. Communicators need to empower them to say the right thing when the right time arises.

In addition, no matter how big or powerful the organization is, treating employees with respect in the face of a layoff is paramount. Think of the Google badge swipe debacle from earlier this year, in which employees were notified that their jobs were no more in the middle of the night in some locations, and their credentials didn’t allow them in the building when they arrived at the office, totally unaware they had been laid off.

That’s a masterclass in how not to do things — just an email, after putting hard work and time in at a company, during off-hours? That’s not honoring the humanity of the workers.

Communicators are always key in helping leaders get big messages out — even when they’re tough ones. When you’ve got comms and leadership working together, the hardest announcements can be done with grace.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.


One Response to “The dos and don’ts of layoff comms”

    Ann Barlow says:

    Well said, Sean. Why is it so hard for other companies to follow suit? I think it’s because they are so focused on investors and (in the case of public companies) their stock price as the primary audience rather than their employees. When will companies learn that if you treat employees with dignity and respect, and provide a soft landing, that while those affected will still experience sadness and fear, there’s a decent chance they won’t feel so inclined to flame the company leadership on social. What’s more, the people who are still employed are more likely to engage on what’s next. Daily Headlines

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