7 tips for writing layoff memos

A memo announcing a big layoff is like a funeral eulogy. It’s for the survivors, not the departed.

Tom Corfman believes an organization’s toughest times should be met with the best writing communicators can muster. He’s a senior consultant with RCG where he directs the Build Better Writers program.

A memo announcing a big layoff is like a funeral eulogy. It’s for the survivors, not the departed.

We recognize the contributions of those who have been terminated to help the rest of the employees move forward.

Workers’ emotions run high after layoffs. They are losing work friends, worrying about their own futures and questioning the competence of the senior leadership team, which many believe got the company in this mess.

Just this month, Peloton, Pixar, Spirit AeroSystems, Lucid Motors, Tesla, Under Armour and Walmart were among the companies that announced layoffs, according to a running report by Business Insider. Good thing there isn’t a recession!

Employees who were let go this month will likely look for a new job on Indeed, which on May 13, 2024, laid off about 1,000 people, or 8% of its workforce, give or take.

Messages announcing job cuts are likely the most closely read and widely shared communication by employees in every organization. Every word counts.

“Layoffs are painful,” Laurie Tennant, a principal in Northwest Venture Partners wrote in 2022, “but you can communicate them compassionately.”

We have seven tips on what should, and should not, be in a memo announcing a major workforce reduction.

1. Prepare employees. Employees should regularly be briefed on the overall state of the business by the CEO, senior leaders and managers. That’s especially true when the financial performance is struggling. That way, if layoffs come, they will be less of a shock.

That’s the approach that Pixar President Jim Morris took when the company laid off 175 people, or 14% of its workforce. His May 21 memo began:

I have spoken to you many times over the last year about our pending move away from series production for Disney+, the return to our focus on feature films, and the reduction in our team that would accompany that. That day is here, and while it is not coming as a surprise to anyone, it is one of the hardest changes we’ve had to make, as it means we will be parting with a number of talented and dedicated colleagues and friends.

Of course, Morris’ conversations led to news media reports in January about the possible layoffs. The communications team should be prepared for that.

2. No euphemisms. The subject line of an email or title of an email should be direct.

When Todd McKinnon, CEO of password authenticator Okta, announced layoffs last year, the subject line of his email was: “Reducing our Workforce by 5%.”

Too often the memos carry an innocuous title. For example, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in December sent a message with the title, “An Update on December 2023 Organizational Changes,” according to The Wall Street Journal, which performed a close reading of the memo.

The topic was the music streaming service’s plan to cut 1,500 jobs.

Likewise, don’t gloss over reality with a euphemism the way many CEOs do, like Bob Bakish of Paramount Global. In February, he wrote that the company was “saying goodbye” to 800 employees, or an estimated 3% of its workforce.

In late April, Paramount said goodbye—and don’t come back—to Bakish.

3. Don’t hide the lede. Layoff announcements suffer from a widespread problem of corporate communications: too much background at the top of the message.

In a March 2023 memo entitled, “Update on Meta’s Year of Efficiency,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote nearly 300 words before reaching the bottom line: A reduction of 10,000 employees and the elimination of 5,000 open positions.

4. Accept responsibility. Layoffs are the fault of chief executives, not employees. Yet many CEOs don’t apologize or take responsibility for the move.

Indeed CEO Chris Hyams is an exception. On May 13, he announced layoffs by saying, “I am responsible for how we got here, and the entire SLT [Senior Leadership Team] is responsible for making the difficult decisions necessary to help set us up for the future. We know these decisions will have a significant impact on people’s lives.”

Hyams also took the blame in March 2023, when Indeed laid off 2,200 people. A CEO does start to run out of credibility.

5. It’s the economy, stupid. This line from the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign is a reminder of what’s obvious. The tough economy was mentioned in nearly all of the 48 layoff memos issued by tech companies in 2022-23, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

That excuse rings hollow to employees. The country wasn’t then—and isn’t now—in a recession.

Anticipating changes in the economy is hard, but it’s part of the boss’s job. The economy is a factor in layoffs, but it’s not a justification.

Likewise, when the CEO says the layoffs are necessary because the company hired too many people too fast. Employees will ask, whose fault was that?

6. More than token thanks. Too often the recognition of those laid off is cursory and comes at the end of the announcement.

Many of the employees avoiding the axe are thinking, “There but for the grace of God …” They want to hear the chief executive express gratitude to their former coworkers.

In January, Discord laid off 170 people, or 17% of its staff. Here’s how Jason Citron closed his message:

I’ll end by sharing deep appreciation and gratitude for those leaving us. Discord is better because of your contributions and the passion you brought to delivering for our users, our company, and each other. Thank you for everything.

It’s incredibly difficult to say goodbye to respected peers, many of whom have become friends. I’m hopeful that working on and with our product has reinforced that these bonds can be sustained and even strengthened beyond the “walls” of any one place.

Take care of yourselves and let’s look out for each other through this particularly challenging time.

Expressions of regret for the layoffs and empathy for those losing their jobs resonate with the employees who remain.

For an example of an unsympathetic approach, consider Walmart’s internal announcement this month. The retail giant’s chief people officer announced layoffs and office relocations of hundreds of corporate workers.

7. Smaller doses of optimism. Crucial to a well-written layoff memo is the chief executive’s explanation of the direction of the company. Too often, CEOs offer vague predictions that better days are coming.

Disney CEO Bob Iger didn’t sugarcoat things in March 2023, when the company announced plans to let go 7,000 employees.

“For our employees who aren’t impacted, I want to acknowledge that there will no doubt be challenges ahead as we continue building the structures and functions that will enable us to be successful moving forward,” he wrote in his memo. “I ask for your continued understanding and collaboration during this time.”

Follow RCG on LinkedIn.


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