Layoffs have always been the worst thing to happen to working professionals at any given point. Especially in times of a lockdown during a pandemic like Covid19, it can be catastrophic for the affected and their families. Communication professionals’ step in to defend the brand in such times from any negative visibility, alongside they also need to work with the company to help manage these situations with compassion and empathy for the laid-off employees.
The layoff of furloughs should be essentially announced only by the head of the company or a CEO. Communication coming from HR or their PR departments may give the impression that the CEO doesn’t care for the employee. Companies should be mindful of what they are communicating, it's important to convey as much information about what led to the job cuts.
During such times the stakeholders/ companies should focus on:
- Employees impacted by lay-offs need to be handled sensitively.
- Existing employees - many companies fail to understand the impact layoffs have on the morale of the remaining employees.
- Managers who deliver the bad news personally to their teams – they need to be coached on how to deliver the separation message with compassion and sensitivity.
- Former Employee backlash – companies should be watchful of ex-employees regrouping on social media to attack the brand at such times
- Clients and partners – you need to communicate the sustenance of the business post-lay-off and assure business continuity. It is best to pick up the phone and explain the scenario.
The focus should be on employee well-being rather than the company's stability. Comments such as, ‘it is an imperative move to save costs or this will help strengthen the company”, should be avoided. Expressions such as ‘had to shed the dead weight,’ will haunt the company later.
Communication should particularly include:
- The believable rationale for the downsizing
- Clear guidelines on how it will be made effective, outplacement services being offered, the process to follow (returning company equipment, communicating good-byes to co-workers, etc.)
Often small businesses driven by entrepreneurs with the smaller workforce have been more effective in announcing layoffs. The promoters show genuine grief, compassion, and empathy as they typically share a closer bond with every employee as compared to CEOs of larger firms. There is a lesson or two to be learned from smaller enterprises in handling such situations.
In the current scenario, companies have to adopt a virtual route to communicate bad news to their employees. A slight callous approach can create a big dent in the company's image. But few companies do stumble; an electric scooter rental service in the US laid off 30% of its workforce on a Zoom call, the CEO later agreed that a more personal approach would have been better. More recently, a ride-hailing company also announced the lay-off on a Zoom call, the CEO on the video mentioned that "We are eliminating 3,500 front-line customer support roles. Your role is impacted and today will be your last working day." The video was leaked to the press and was widely criticized for its insensitive nature.
On the other hand, Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky in a letter to employees, said, "I have some very sad news to announce. Today, I must confirm that we are reducing the size of the Airbnb workforce. We are collectively living through the most harrowing crisis of our lifetime, and as it began to unfold, global travel came to a standstill. Airbnb's business has been hit hard, with revenue this year forecasted to be less than half of what we earned in 2019. " He further went to explain the steps the company would be taking. This empathetic approach was appreciated industry-wide.
In the age of the hyper-digital world, corporate reputation has never been so fragile. Sites such as Glassdoor and others offer multiple avenues for disgruntled employees to express their feelings and remember, digital has a long tail.
Communications professionals' internal or external advisors are duty-bound to ensure that the furloughed employees are treated with the utmost care and should continue to communicate with them even after the announcement. Companies should use digital listening solutions to respond to negative comments on social media and review sites.
It is also important to communicate openly and in a transparent manner with the remaining employees as even they would be insecure fearing their jobs. There should be sessions on reassurance in a medium that allows you to do so in a protected environment. A micro-site or an interactive page on the company website should be made available for existing employees to post their questions (preferably anonymously) and can expect a response from the management. Companies should ensure that internal discussions should not be leaked outside.
Keep in mind that you are dealing with a human and not just a statistic.