RIFs are often the worst day of everyone’s professional lives. Leadership feels terrible delivering the news, impacted employees are shaken, and the remaining employees are left to pick up the pieces, having been asked to keep the business afloat with limited bandwidth.
As communications leaders we recognize there is a right way and a wrong way to go about laying off staff, and it starts with a sound and empathetic internal communications strategy. In the weeks leading up to a RIF, a business should frequently pause and ask itself three questions as each decision is made:
- Will it meet the financial need behind this decision?
- Does it soften the landing as much as possible for those affected?
- Will it minimize any potential brand damage?
While under normal circumstances conducting layoffs using Zoom does not meet the second and third criteria, at the moment, both employees and the media are giving it a pass. There have been a few critical stories about making the announcement on Zoom, but given the circumstances workforces face throughout the world, it is suddenly seen as an acceptable format if a company needs to speak to several employees at once. What a business should not do under any circumstance is send out a pre-recorded Zoom message. The reception has been deservedly harsh.
There is no such thing as a perfect RIF — or one that is positively received — but the following framework should be followed as closely as a company’s infrastructure allows.
- Conduct multiple, simultaneous, small group conference calls or Zoom meetings, with the preferred method being a phone call. The desire for face-to-face contact is understandable, however this generally makes leadership feel better, not the employee who may want to shroud their emotions.
- The call leader should apologize for not being able to talk in person, note the current crisis, then quickly move on to the layoff news.
- It’s impossible to control every aspect of how an employee will react, but often the most important piece of the conversation is about severance. The more generous a severance package is, the better the employee will feel and the less likely they are to lash out on social media, to the press or to their former colleagues. A financially supportive exit can minimize an employee’s strong feelings about how the news was delivered.
- If a small group solution is not possible and the news must be delivered on an all-hands call or video conference, try to follow the below cadence:
- Briefly explain the businesses challenges faced. Avoid dwelling on this point, but ensure the decision is properly framed.
- Note that while difficult decisions are being made, the company pledges to do right by its employees, both financially and emotionally.
- Concisely announce the layoffs, only spending as much time as needed to avoid confusion around which employees are impacted.
- Quickly pivot to details about severance, providing all of the information that can be shared.
- Thoroughly explain the immediate next steps for impacted employees. This includes offering them time to process the news and detailing the offboarding process. Any clarity that can be provided at this difficult moment can go a long way for an employee’s emotional well-being.
- Explain what steps the company took before reaching the decision to conduct layoffs. Many employees will have understandably checked out at this point and started to alert their immediate families. Although it is important to provide this information for those who want closure, this is the least important step.
- Show empathy and thankfulness throughout the remarks.
- Leave time to field questions, but answer every question with the same talking points used throughout the meeting.
Employees respond well to two months of severance, with three months being the point at which they begin to react calmly. Job placement assistance — either through a formal company program or by creating spreadsheets from within the company’s network — is always viewed warmly. Allowing employees to keep their laptops, computer equipment and other work collateral is not a substitute for only offering one month of severance. This will likely result in harsh criticism on social media and increases the potential for negative press.
Fortunately for businesses forced into laying off staff, there is a general environment of understanding around the decision as long as it’s done with a degree of empathy and humanity.
During these trying times, remember that this too shall pass. Regardless of when experts believe the global crisis will end, all of them agree there will be an end. If a business was not considering a RIF prior to the outbreak, it was probably a healthy business that should stay the course, do its best to weather the storm, and keep its head held high.
The Communications Guide to Layoffs To help businesses handle the unprecedented turmoil of our economy and navigate the very real and very fast impact, we’ve developed a series of articles detailing best practices regarding layoff communications: Part 1: The Reputational Risk of RIF Part 2: Execute a layoff narrative pivot Part 3: Layoff Communications Don’ts Part 4: Layoff Communications Do's Part 5: Corporate PR Recommendations for COVID-19 Part 7: Greenbrier Live - RIF Communications 101