How to Communicate to Your Team About a Company Layoff

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This is a two-part series on navigating company layoffs in HR. Click here to read part 1

How to Communicate About Company Layoffs

A layoff might be happening at your company. As an HR professional, announcing, communicating, helping people through a layoff is one of the worst things in my career. The fear, the stress, and the anxiousness that employees who are impacted is real. It’s also extremely unpleasant for everyone which is why communicating is critical for everyone. That includes the employees who are being laid off as well as others within the organization.

Be Transparent

Yes, it’s scary to have to restructure or lay off employees so that your company can continue to operate. But even your legal department can get on board with a “this is what’s happening and we all hate it, but we’re here to help you” approach.

If your company isn’t already having quarterly all-staff meetings about its fiscal health, now is the time to start, whether you see layoffs coming down the road or not. Your staff members are the core of your company. Keeping secrets leads to rumors, which lead to people jumping ship. A simple overview of departmental revenue, profit and loss, is sufficient. Be sure to allow time for your employees to ask questions. And if your CEO is presenting, make sure he or she is briefed on how to answer them. If an employee asks “are we restructuring or going to lay off staff?” (and you know that you might have to in the future), be honest. Gentle, but honest. You’d be surprised how many staff members appreciate honesty and how quickly it can starve the rumors. Sure, you might have a few employees start looking elsewhere, but they’re likely to be employees that know their performance hasn’t been stellar so they might be marked for layoff.

Once your legal and HR department are on the same page with regards to transparency, let your HR leadership team take the lead with individual layoffs. Be prepared to answer ANY question, and don’t just offer a severance package. There are companies out there who specialize in transitioning laid off employees. Hire one and offer their services to your outgoing employee.

As a best practice, provide your managers of all levels especially front-line managers talking points to reference and use during one on one employee conversations and team meetings. These talking points can be repurposed from the FAQ’s you provided employees.

Be Sincere, Be Sorry

Put yourself in your employee’s shoes. If you’ve been transparent, the layoff meeting should not be a surprise. It’s OK to tell them how much it sucks. You’re human and receiving and/or giving news like this is unpleasant and emotional for everyone involved. Work with your legal team on leadership talking points including verbiage and messaging that is approved for the impacted team members and the rest of the employee population.

Tell employees the WHY and be sincere. The company is losing money. Your CEO has been honest in quarterly meetings (hopefully). In order to survive, restructuring must take place. Make sure you know the employee sitting in front of you and what he or she does. Thank them for their contribution and be as specific as you can. Explain the benefits and severance offered if available. . Tell them it’s a great time to be on the job market (it is right now). Tell them the severance is the company’s way of showing its appreciation for their work. And explain how working with XYZ agency (who will help them with resume, contacts, and anything else job seeking related) will help them quickly find a position at a more stable company.

Finally, offer a letter of reference before being asked. This is a gift and will go a long way towards your offboarded employee’s morale.

Expect Bad Reviews

And yes, respond to them. If you work for a large company, it’s likely your layoffs made the business or industry news. Your marketing department can help with how to keep it kind and simple when an employee leaves a negative review on an employee review site. Your legal department can approve your responses. You might actually be surprised to see a GOOD review from a laid-off employee. It’s happened. Why? Because your HR and leadership team was transparent, generous, and warm. Layoffs and restructuring can be cold-hearted processes. Do them differently and you minimize the number of disgruntled laid-off employees.

What About the Rest of Your Staff?

Most employers don’t often think of how an organizational change can hurt not just the product and business brand but the recruiting and employment brand, causing the employees that remain to look elsewhere for job opportunities or your candidate funnels to decrease.

Recovery from a layoff is faster and easier if managers and employees are allowed to speak their minds freely about what’s happened. Hold focus groups and employees meetings to help facilitate employee conversations. Don’t forget to remind employees of your company’s open door policies with a gentle reminder to leaders their obligation to follow the guidelines. In fact, it can be a great opportunity for the team of surviving employees to pull together and renew ties. Make sure your managers are enabled and enabling their staff to talk about the restructure.

What can you do as an HR leader in this position? Check in with every single remaining employee to make sure 1) they understand the what and the why, 2) do a morale check, and 3) find out if anything happened to their role as a result of the layoffs, such as double the workload if they lost staff members in their department. Address this swiftly with the employee’s direct supervisor and ensure that the additional work is distributed fairly.

The primary difference in what you’re doing here is this: Most companies perform layoffs, then never speak of it again. These companies are left with employees with increased workloads and gradually decreasing morale. Have you ever worked for a company who met individually with employees who were NOT laid off after a layoff? I haven’t.

The Bottom Line

Restructuring and layoffs are unavoidable in almost every industry. It’s imperative that all leadership is prepared, transparent, comfortable speaking about the process, and you’ll keep your candidate funnel full, allowing you to continue to grow other areas of your business and meet talent demand.

This is a two-part series on navigating company layoffs in HR. Click here to read part 1

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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