How communicators can infuse empathy into layoff or furlough announcements

You can save your company’s reputation by helping execs craft compassionate messaging—and by advocating for affected colleagues.

How to announce layoffs with empathy

Announcing layoffs is unpleasant in normal times. It’s especially difficult during a pandemic.

Complicating matters, news may be delivered virtually due to social distancing rules. In many cases, temporary layoffs are termed furloughs. Employees typically keep benefits while on furlough and hope to return to work when normalcy returns. Nonetheless, announcing furloughs is still a grim task.

Announcing layoffs now is “emotionally and cognitively overwhelming,” Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School, told Harvard Business Review. “This experience for most of us is unfathomable,” he says. “There’s a great deal of uncertainty, and people’s minds are whirring.”

The CEO typically informs employees of layoffs with guidance from HR departments. But it’s essential for communicators to be involved in the process to advise the CEO, help craft the announcements, and safeguard the organization’s reputation. PR managers must take into account three constituencies, writes Gary Grates, principal at W20 Group, in PR News.

Those groups are:

  • Managers who deliver the bad news
  • Furloughed employees
  • Employees who remain

For large employers, a public announcement may also be necessary.

Helping CEOs share bad news

To be effective, communicators must join execs, HR and legal counsel in the decision-making process, Gates says. Having that seat at the table enables you to provide counsel throughout the process and gain a thorough understanding of the business reasons for the bad news.

Public statements should come from the CEO — no one else, writes Ben Silverman for ereleases. A statement from the PR department gives the outside world — and employees — the impression that the CEO does not want to take responsibility for the decision. That does not help the company’s public image.

What can help your organization’s image, however, is sharing how the company is helping laid-off employees. Focus on employee well-being instead of using empty phrases such as, “These moves will strengthen our organization,” Silverman warns. Such comments devalue the workers who have been laid off, and no one is buying the idea that less human talent is going to make a company better.

Some companies have stumbled when announcing layoffs virtually. Electric scooter rental company Bird encountered criticism recently after it laid off 30% of its workforce on a live Zoom conference call. Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said it turned off the video function in an attempt to be more humane, but he admitted one-on-one calls to employees would have been a better approach.

Paradoxically, small businesses seem to be most effective in announcing layoffs. The owners almost always express authentic grief about laying off their employees. Of course, small business owners are typically closer to their employees than the CEOs of larger organizations – and therefore feel more empathy. The spokespersons for larger organizations can learn from the small business owner by avoiding PR talk, jargon and empty platitudes when bad news strikes. Focus on authentically expressing compassion in all layoff announcements.

Advocating for furloughed workers

Furloughed employees remain a potential reputational risk. They may take to social media networks and job review sites such as Glassdoor to publicize their grievances and complaints. It’s essential that organizations treat them with the utmost respect and dignity and provide fair financial packages.

Communication pros must prepare to argue the merits of treating furloughed employees well from a reputational standpoint. Continue to communicate with furloughed workers to keep them informed. However, beware of promising too much. They may return to work, of course, but no one is sure what the future holds.

Companies in this position might consider using a digital listening service that can alert PR pros to comments on social media that may call for responses.

Informing remaining employees

A common mistake companies make is to neglect employees who remain. They are likely emotionally shaken and still fearing for their own jobs. They may look to the organization’s leaders for reassurance. They’ll also probably watch how the company treats furloughed workers.

Communications experts recommend being as transparent as possible in these situations. Consider holding an “Ask Me Anything” session, which can squelch rumors. Once held in auditoriums or in conference rooms, such events can now be conducted virtually using online apps such as Zoom or WebEx.

A page on your intranet or a microsite can also keep employees updated and offer a forum where they can post questions – anonymously or not – and read management’s responses. Offer at least one channel for employees to share questions and concerns, and put a process in place to respond in a timely manner, advises Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, CEO at Tribe, an agency specializing in internal communications.

Whichever platforms or channels you choose, give employees ample space and time to ask difficult questions—and make sure they get the honest answers they deserve.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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