Crafting empathy: Tips for effective layoff communications

Jessica Doyle of Two Creeks Strategies shares the golden rule for communicating layoffs.

Layoffs are undeniably a difficult experience for everyone involved. They go beyond just job loss, often causing financial strain and emotional turmoil. The impact resonates throughout the workplace, affecting the overall mood and relationships — for both the laid-off and the remaining employees.

Recently, we’ve seen back-to-back layoff announcements in the tech and media industries. Layoffs are sometimes inevitable in business, but those communications should be thoughtfully crafted with respect and empathy – which is the golden rule for communicating layoffs, according to Jessica Doyle, founder, principal and fractional CCO at Two Creeks Strategies.

One of the first things you should do before communicating this news to employees is to do a “run of show”, Doyle said. Begin by constructing a detailed timeline that thoroughly assesses all communication channels. Then, consider how the message will be perceived through the lens of empathy by your employees.

Below, we’ll look at three different layoff communications of note and share some pointers on how they could have been communicated differently.

Prioritize transparent communication in times of change

Michele Ehrhart, CEO of Hart Communications, emphasized that how you communicate bad news to impacted employees has immediate impacts on your culture, brand and reputation. “The rule of thumb is to consider how you would want to be told if the roles were reversed,” she said.

Wayfair announced its layoffs plan on Jan. 19, citing it was cutting 13% percent of its global workforce or about 1,650 workers. The layoff was shared with employees in a companywide email. This was just weeks after Wayfair CEO and Co-founder Niraj Shah sent an email to employees sharing that the “company’s market share is growing nicely”, and the important steps it has taken to win. He continues to address and correct some “Nirajisms”, which are phrases that start with ‘Niraj said’.

Here’s an excerpt from the email.

“You may know of Nirajisms, these are phrases that start with ‘Niraj said’. What disappoints me is that the majority I hear are either not true, are old and no longer applicable, or are taken out of context. The one I would reference here that I heard was ‘Niraj said that he does not think that we should work late’. I would suggest that this is laughably false. Hard work is essential for success, and a key part of getting things done…”

“Letting the team know that the return to profitability is worth celebrating while reminding them that there is more work to be done would have made the workforce realignment message a month later easier to understand,” Ehrhart said. “Instead, by focusing on rumored conversations followed by a lecture on working harder, he left the employees feeling conflicted and landed himself in the media.”

Minimize the element of surprise and foster trust

Doyle stressed that communicators should ensure layoff conversations happen through direct managers as often as possible to avoid people finding out they’re being laid off in large groups.

Or if you get this link to this video call, you’re the one who’s getting laid off,” she said.

In late January, Google’s parent company Alphabet announced it would lay off 12,000 employees. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai shared the news with employees in an email.

One of those employees was Chris McDonald, who was working as a senior software engineer at Google.

In a post on X, he described the announcement as a “total and nasty surprise.” He was expecting news of the opposite, praise for his work ethic as he had recently taken the lead on an important project.

Communicators can eliminate the surprise by training executives to be transparent about the state of the business long before any announcements are made.

“A missed opportunity for Google was proactively sharing what efforts were taking place to address the changes impacting the business prior to or in addition to the reduction of workforce,” Ehrhart said.

The employee’s experience is not unique, but it does shed light on the crucial need for transparent and personalized communication in the face of unexpected workforce changes.

“You have to be ready, and prepared for any scenario, any response scenario, because every employee is their own news bureau,” said Doyle.

Plan for timing and transparency CEO Vishal Garg announced in 2021 that the mortgage company was reducing about 9% of its workforce, or more than 900 employees on a Zoom call, weeks before Christmas.

Video was taken from the Zoom announcement and posted to social media. In the video, Garg described those being terminated as part of the “unlucky group.”

“The market has changed as you know and we have to move with it in order to survive, so hopefully we can continue to thrive and deliver our mission,” Garg said on the Zoom call.

The CEO faced backlash stemming from how he delivered the news.

“While a personal meeting, call or Zoom from the immediate manager is the best way to share bad news with the individuals impacted, a group setting is never a good idea,” Ehrhart said. “A better approach would have been to notify those impacted personally and separately followed by an email or video from the CEO to the entire organization outlining the actions and reasons behind those actions.”

To add insult to injury and optics, the mortgage lender was set to go public through a SPAC, receiving a cash injection from its backers, Aurora Acquisition Corp. and SoftBank of $750 million in cash around the same time.

Planning layoffs right before huge investments you’re about to announce or after, isn’t a good look. “It makes you look not credible with all the messaging that you’re telling your employees,” Doyle said, adding that a move like that will hurt your company culture.

“Your worst look is David and Goliath,” she added. “And if Goliath looks like a bully, you’ve lost.”

Learn more about tips for effective layoff comms and other topics by joining us at Ragan and PR Daily’s 2024 Employee Communications and Culture Conference, April 16-18,

Isis Simpson-Mersha is a conference producer/ reporter for Ragan. Follow her on LinkedIn.


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