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How to Effectively Communicate with Employees During a Layoff: A checklist

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Credit: istockphoto.com/Cecilie_Arcurs

The world is on an economic downswing as the COVID-19 crisis continues. By the end of May, as the number of cases surpassed five million globally, the toll on organizations has been heavy. Many have cut expenses to the bone and have been forced to lay off valued employees. And unfortunately the layoffs will likely continue throughout the year.

Of course, managing effective communication during a layoff is fraught with challenges. Many communicators, especially those who haven’t experienced layoffs before, quickly become overwhelmed, wondering:

  • Where do I start?
  • What’s the most appropriate order of events?
  • How can I ensure we treat employees with empathy and honesty?
  • How can we retain employee pride after the layoffs?

The best way to deal with this level of complexity is to get organized. Use this checklist as a step-by-step process for managing your efforts. That way, you’ll get ahead of difficult situations and steer the organization through this trying time.

Partner with key teams

It’s critical to work closely with colleagues who are coordinating layoffs or have an important stake in the process. This partnership will ensure you’re up to date on the latest information and you’re caring for employees’ needs. Here’s where to start.

 Identify key stakeholders, such as HR, legal, affected business unit leaders, IT and facilities. If these folks have set up a task force to manage the process, get a seat at the table. If not, set up a weekly or daily meeting to ensure everyone is in close coordination.

 Next, tap into this group of experts to understand every detail of the plan. Ask lots of questions, including:

    • Is there a coordinated plan to handle all layoffs on the same day? If not, how will we manage employee anxiety as each new wave is announced?
    • Do we need to inform unions, works councils, local governments or other parties?

You’ll use all this deep knowledge to develop an effective plan and draft accurate messages as you move through implementation.

Develop a detailed communication plan

Learn more

For more on this topic, join Alison Davis’ presentation, Communicating Layoffs: How to show compassion, build credibility and maintain employee engagement, at the virtual 2020 IABC World Conference, happening 14-17 June.

Once you’ve collected the details, it’s time to create a comprehensive communication plan. Having a clear plan of action will guide you through any surprises or moments of uncertainty. When in doubt, refer to your plan to determine the best way to handle a situation.

As with every big change, you’ll want to focus special attention on developing strong objectives to guide your activities. Make sure you consider employees being laid off and those who aren’t affected. Here are some examples:

What employees should know
  Employees being separated: What resources are available to them, what steps to take and who to contact before their last day of employment
 Remaining employees: Department priorities for moving forward, including how any lost job roles will be covered

What employees should believe

 All: The organization is treating all employees with respect and care.
 All: This was a difficult decision to make, but critical for the future success of the organization.

What employees should do

 Remaining employees: Participate in department discussions about the layoffs and future business plans.

Carefully plan your timeline to coordinate who receives what information and when.

Be sure to consider three phases: before, during and after the layoff announcement.

Think about who needs to know what information first. You’ll want affected employees to learn the news in person first before hearing rumors in the hallway.

Don’t forget to inform teams that their valued colleagues have been let go. These folks will be wondering if their jobs are on the line, so your announcement will both provide them relief and inform them of the tough news.

Create empathetic, honest messages

Developing the right messages to communicate a layoff is especially difficult. You need to balance clarity with empathy—get to the point but also write and speak conversationally. If messages are delivered well, employees will appreciate being treated with respect and will be much less likely to react poorly.

Here’s how:

Don’t hide the bad news. Don’t bury it behind context or sandwich it between good news—you risk confusing the employee. And don’t sugarcoat it with empty phrases like, “Don’t worry” or “It’s not so bad.”

Instead, get right to the point and make the news crystal clear. Treat employees like adults. When conducting a layoff, first explain that the employee is being let go, then share context and finally provide details about benefits and pay. Likewise, when announcing the situation company-wide, put the news first and the background second.

 Do show you care by acknowledging that this is a tough situation. When speaking with an employee who’s being laid off, try this: “I know this is difficult news. How are you feeling right now?”

Coach leaders and managers to communicate with dignity and authority

It’s one thing for you to draft effective messages. It’s a whole other ball game to help leaders and managers use those messages well. We know strong leader communication is critical to building trust among employees. To achieve that, leaders and managers need to be direct, clear and genuine.

Here’s how to help leaders and managers communicate effectively:

Develop a communication toolkit that leaders and managers can read to understand the importance of their role, brush up on their skills and learn important information. With everyone reading the same advice and messaging, they’ll all be able to speak the same language. Your toolkit should include:

    • The leader’s or manager’s role in communicating.
    • Key messages explaining what’s happening and why.
    • Frequently asked questions.
    • Scripts to coach leaders and managers on what to say.

Schedule a prep meeting for all leaders and managers. This should occur one to five days ahead of the layoffs, depending on your timeline. During this meeting you’ll cover the timeline of events so everyone is on the same page. You’ll also need to clearly explain leaders’ and managers’ responsibilities for communication so they’re prepared to take action. Provide leaders with the communication toolkit so they can study up.

Lastly, include plenty of time for discussion so everyone has an opportunity to share concerns.

Cheryl Ross

Cheryl Ross is senior project director at communication consultancy Davis & Company. She has more than 10 years of experience helping companies and their employees communicate. Her specialties include managing complex change, planning comprehensive communication programs, supporting leader and manager communication, and weaving stories that make an impact. She’s partnered with global corporations including Avantor, Prudential Financial, BASF and Harman International. Prior to joining Davis & Company, she got her start in corporate communications at York Risk Services Group, a claims adjusting firm based in northern New Jersey.

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