Executives understand that an organization’s reputation – or the combined perception of past performance and actions with future prospects – is one of its most important strategic resources.
Companies that have established strong positive reputations attract top talent, engender customer loyalty and spur enthusiasm from investors. But a company’s value to these same stakeholders is also influenced by intangibles like customer engagement, transparency, values, and contributions to community, meaning organizations are especially vulnerable to anything that damages their reputations.
One well-known development that has a negative impact on an organization’s reputation — and far more so for newer firms than older ones? Layoffs.
Though no executive wants to ponder the prospect of having to lay off employees or face a reduction in force (RIF), challenging circumstances and less prosperous economic times mean difficult decisions like these may be unavoidable. Communicating layoffs is never an easy task, but with detailed preparation and the application of the same efforts used to build their reputations, companies can mitigate the damage to their brand as they deliver the news to exiting employees, remaining employees, and to the public.
And while no RIF process is a positive one, by understanding the vulnerabilities and guiding the process with the following key principles, it’s yet another opportunity for the organization to demonstrate its core beliefs. Here are the critical risks to manage when faced with RIF comms:
The Risk: If there’s blood in the water, sharks will circle.
The Principle: Weakness is a bad look for large companies and can be business-ending for small companies.
A layoff is frequently interpreted as a sign of weakness. It can show that a business was poorly managed, failed to get traction or lost the interest of its customer base. Absent an alternative narrative, most reporters and readers will assume something is wrong with the company and that led to a layoff. Once that narrative is printed, it can take months or even years to fix. Fortunately the solution is clear – deflect the bad news with a combination of reason and optimistic good news. Here’s a great example of this tactic.
The Risk: Creating an environment where individuals are able to infer intentions and thus create a narrative that is shared widely in the public space.
The Principle: Understand all actions can affect public perception.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, should be considered to be too big or too small to be examined from the perspectives of your various stakeholders. What you say, how you say it, when you say, where you say it, etc. will imply your priorities and it’s essential to take the time to consider what that looks and feels like to those who are receiving the news.
The Risk: Alienating the people who matter most by withholding information.
The Principle: Be as upfront, transparent and honest as possible.
First, this means ensuring that the news comes directly from the company to your teams, investors, key partners and customers before the media or general public are informed. Simply put, no staff member wants to read a headline about their own layoff even if the circumstances preceding these decisions are well-established, take the time to explain how the company arrived where it is right now. This includes outlining decisions made prior to a RIF – specifically, what else was done in order to try to avoid this? – so they understand this was a last resort. An employee will have different questions and underlying interests than an investor or a board member, but taking the time to explain the executive team’s thinking will provide time and context to help individuals process the news.
The Risk: Projecting chaos, fractured leadership or a rudderless ship.
The Principle: Keep a cool head, show the path forward, and always us the good human standard.
Don’t try to predict the future or make lofty promises you’re not sure you will be able to keep. The former only works in movies, and if you’ve ever hung out with a child, you know the latter will more likely just lead to hurt feelings, disappointment and tears. Do talk about the steps being taken to move forward right now, the optimistic plan for the future and what that means for your staff, your customers and the company’s mission and bottom line. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say, ‘We don’t know’ if presented with a question or scenario that you are currently unable to predict – admitting the vulnerability of not having all the answers under extraordinary circumstances is to be a human and far more often than not, this resonates with, you know, other humans.
The Risk: Culture dissolution or staff wariness
The Principle: Stay true to your core values
With news of layoffs, emotions can be expected to run high across all levels of the organization. There will be some staff members who have anxiety about the future, and concerns about short- and long-term changes while others who experience grief over losing colleagues and friends to the downsize. The best strategy is to keep employees engaged and informed. Establish open lines of communication so staff \understand the changes, whether they’re about roles and responsibilities, organizational structures or policies, or beyond, and involve them in the process as much as possible. As a result, they’ll have a connection to and investment in the company moving forward.
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 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 6: Managing Internal Layoff Communications Part 7: Greenbrier Live - RIF Communications 101