The announcement by Microsoft of massive layoffs brought to mind my own experience at Tektronix when it began paring employees, signaling the start of its downward spiral as a major employer.
Laying off employees — whether it's one or thousands — is no fun. Communicating the layoffs is no fun either, but there are ways to make it less painful — for those losing their jobs and those who stay.
Painful Lesson #1
Let employees and other internal stakeholders (key vendors, consultants, strategic partners) know about layoffs before the general public. Nobody likes to get the news about a layoff that could affect them in a newspaper.
There are always logistical, timing and legal considerations that go into how and when a layoff is announced. But here is the painful truth — there is always, always a negative, sometimes permanent reaction when the layoff announcement is made public before it is made personally.
Employees are not dumb. They know when layoffs are looming. They may even understand why they are necessary for the greater good of the company or organization. What they can't forget — or maybe forgive — is being the last to know.
Painful Lesson #2
Picking the right spokesperson is a critical part of getting your message across. When it comes to announcing a layoff, the spokesperson must carry the appropriate weight in an organization. Too often CEOs, who gladly gallop to the microphone to announce good news, are suddenly unavailable to convey the bad news.
The layoff message needs to speak to multiple audiences. It needs to express empathy for the impact on the lives and families of those who will lose their jobs. It needs to reassure those remaining that the company or organization has a strategic plan beyond just cutting the expense of some employees. It needs to affirm the continuing viability of the enterprise to members of the community or communities affected.
One of the most important qualities the spokesperson should possess is good body language. A smile or smirk can be seen as an unintended message to those with pink slips — and those staying on the ship. Media training helps. But as often as not, the person who explains layoffs to Wall Street analysts isn't the right choice to announce them to everyone else.
Painful Lesson #3
Like most forms of crisis communication, what you say about a layoff is less important than what you do. How you treat departing workers speaks as loudly to those who stay as those who go. Your remaining workforce won't be very motivated to go the extra mile if they perceive you as unwilling to budge an inch on a smooth transition out of the company or organization.
While money speaks, what most people worry about is getting another job, and getting one that pays as well as the one they are losing. Counseling, new skill training and assisting with connections with other employers can be highly valued because they connect to a new income stream, rather than a lump sum that can evaporate rapidly in the face of current obligations and expenses.
The correct way to think about smoothing the way out for laid-off employees is as an investment in the employees that are still on the job. Your humane treatment of ex-workers translates into a sense of heightened value by current workers. By the way, your customers will be taking note, too.
In a perfect world, there would be no layoffs. In our imperfect world, there are no bigger challenges than to manage a layoff notice with sensitivity, skill and respect.