The right way to layoff staff

The right way to layoff staff

Communication | Judette Coward-Puglisi

May 7, 2009

 The executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, should be applauded for knowing how to deliver tough news. Two months ago, when he announced that the newsroom would lose  5 per cent of its editorial staff  he did so in front of all his employees via a speech that  was laced with a strong dose of  pessimism about the current  reality  and a realistic hope of the future.  

“We—all of us—have taken a badly wounded, publicly humiliated newsroom and restored it, largely by dint of great journalism, to a position of international esteem," Keller told his audience. "And we have done all of this while avoiding the cutting of muscle that has so badly weakened many of our competitors.”

He  brought back memories of  how much the team had accomplished together while stating  that the innovations  weren’t enough to save jobs but that executive management  were doing everything in its power to  integrate new, web-based strategies and models in order to restore the newspaper to profitability.

The speech was honest. It didn’t disguise the fact that painful times  were coming but it didn’t overpromise. More importantly after the speeche , Keller and other senior executives sat on a panel to answer some very tough questions.

Contrast that with another layoff announcement. This time in Trinidad where  news of a layoff  reached employees through a management leak to the press. Termination notices were served one week later. It was handled by HR but can you imagine the fear and panic that was created during those seven days?  The CEO never once thought it necessary to lead from in front and he was instantly  detested for his perceived callous behavior. 

Is there a humane way of letting go employees? Keller  shows that  there is . Not easier.  Just more considerate.  In delivering news of corporate layoffs management should feel obliged to deliver the bad news in a way that affords some dignity to those caught in the downsizing net as well as reassure those left behind  about  the strategic goals behind the cuts. Do it any other way and you stand to lose. Ex-employees will bad mouth your brand and those who are left behind will be as motivated as prisoners on a chain gang.

Here are some guidelines  about the dos and don’ts of communicating  news of corporate layoffs to your staff:

Don’t be upbeat two weeks before you are to deliver news of layoff, employees will feel betrayed and undermined.

Don’t delegate  pain, not all layoffs should be the job of HR especially when delivering the initial news. Corporate Communications should be integrated into any HR strategy. 

If there are a lot of people to be let go, do let your CEO make a statement that puts the layoffs into context.  

Most people are loyal first to their manager, then to their company so do let your managers deliver the initial message, HR can come in after

Don’t deliver the news in public.

Do offer job counselling and outplacement support.  It sends a signal to  the remaining employees that you’re treating the ex-workers as people, not as  cogs in the wheel

Do whatever it takes to help employees who remain with their  jobs to  cope with their emotions quickly.