In public relations, the goal is often to generate news that tells a positive story about a business or brand. But sometimes, good companies have to share bad news. The last six months have seen waves of layoffs and other staff reduction announcements at major tech corporations, despite record-low unemployment levels.
What can smaller companies learn from these announcements? Is there any right way to share the decision to reduce the workforce?
Many large public companies are required to disclose workforce reduction plans at least 60 days in advance of actual layoffs. Others may opt for a longer timeframe for planning purposes. Disney, for example, announced a restructuring in a February earnings call, outlining plans to cut $5.5 billion in costs, including 7000 positions worldwide. The layoffs announcement grabbed headlines and obviously shook up rank and file staff, who are naturally wondering if they’re on the list. In Disney’s case, the moves came amid returning CEO Bob Iger’s struggles with an activist investor. They resulted in a resolution of the investor feud and a quick rise in the stock price. But Disney should follow through swiftly to shorten the window where rumor, anxiety, and distraction rule. For most corporations, it’s best not to drag out such plans. The goal is to refocus employees and stabilize morale.
This is harder than it looks. Affected employees will immediately spread the news, of course. Also, any written communication will be shared outside the company. So it’s wise to coordinate both the messaging and the timing of the news thoughtfully and carefully. No one wants to find out they’ve lost their job by rumor or, worse, seeing it on Twitter. And no company wants to deliver mixed messages regarding the rationale for a workforce reduction.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, Elon Musk is the current role model for what not to do. On Monday, a Twitter worker named Haraldur Thorleifsson tweeted at Musk asking for clarification of his employment status. Apparently, Thorleifsson’s computer access had been revoked, but Twitter’s HR department would not confirm his termination. After Thorleifsson’s tweet went viral, Musk queried him about his work responsibilities. When Thorleifsson ultimately described his active projects, Musk responded with two laugh emojis and a link to a video from Office Space. Quartz called it “one of the cruelest moments of Musk’s tenure,” which is saying a lot.
In direct communication with impacted employees, let them know what kind of severance and support they can expect. Don’t torture them with extraneous details. Don’t drown them in red tape. Nor should an organization try to sugarcoat the news. Staff who are responsible for one-to-one communication should be compassionate and transparent, but also direct.
Corporations must obviously make hard decisions for the greater good of the whole, but it’s best to avoid using expressions like, “cutting the fat,” or promising a “stronger/more nimble/leaner organization.” These kinds of descriptors devalue the employees who are part of the layoff. Instead, focus the message on the contributions that departing staff have made and express gratitude for their commitment.
Too often, the priorities a company describes during a staff reduction are contradicted by its actions. By all accounts CEO Satya Nadella has executed a brilliant turnaround at Microsoft, but his timing for announcing layoffs in January was clumsy. Microsoft hosted a private concert with musician Sting for senior executives at Davos, just one day before announcing it would lay off 10,000 employees. Naturally, events are planned well in advance, but it’s hard to blame employees who thought Nadella’s explanatory blog post rang hollow.
If it’s appropriate, a top decision-maker should take responsibility for the decision and offer reasons for it that go beyond platitudes. Mark Zuckerberg actually wins points on this front for Meta’s staff reduction announcement last year. In a letter to employees, he explained “how we got here” in clear terms, calling the layoffs “a last resort.” Then he backed that up with a detailed description of additional cuts and planned changes to Meta’s AI infrastructure.
It’s not part of an external PR strategy, but the most important thing a company can do after a staff reduction is to double down on its remaining employees. Ideally, a business develops a retention plan for top employees in advance of any staff reduction. In the wake of cuts, workers may be grappling with added responsibilities on top of feeling shocked or upset that colleagues have departed. It’s important for line managers to engage with them, invite feedback, and follow through on planned changes. Any business needs its employees more than ever during a downturn, but cutbacks will shake the confidence of those who remain. It’s essential that they feel heard as well as valued.