Layoff communications essentials: Before, during, and after

Speed, sensitivity, and consistency are just a few of the elements necessary for having things go as smoothly as possible during this difficult process.

There is no end to plant closings and layoffs, whether in good economic times or bad ones.

How a company conveys this awful news reflects its values. Every situation is unique, but here are communication guidelines I hope you never need.

1. Avoid a “bolt from the blue.” Brief employees on the condition of your business regularly so that a cutback does not blindside them. A vice president I know did such a good job communicating that he got a standing ovation when he announced a plant closing. Employees wanted him to know they appreciated his efforts to keep them in the loop.

2. Scrupulously plan. Plot every step of a closing or layoff announcement like a complex military maneuver. The order of “battle” is crucial.

3. Tell supervisors first. Stunned personnel may not remember all you say and will later grill their supervisors for clarification. Let supervisors know what you know so they can repeat the important information. They can even participate in notification planning. You’ll need their support.

4. Communicate fast. Because word will travel like a rocket once notifications begin, tell employees quickly to minimize the period of uncertainty. Compress time.

5. Notify personally. Employees should hear the news in person from a manager and not via outsiders, email, telephone, mail, or the media. This can be difficult given multiple shifts spread over several days and the nature of the grapevine. Do your best so that employees know you’ve tried hard to tell them early.

6. Tell it as though their mother has died. Plant closings and layoffs are life-altering events, so pass the word with the same sensitivity you would use in conveying news of a death.

7. Immediately give employees a senior official to yell at or cry with. I will never forget the face of an executive who let person after person vent to him after they were fired. He was a wreck, but felt it his duty to be available. Employees will tell the community how you treated them.

8. Provide all the transition benefits you can afford. The only reasonably good news you can offer is how the company will help employees move on. Transition assistance is humane and gives you something constructive to say.

9. Put benefits in writing. Traumatized people may not remember all you said, so give them a written explanation of the company’s actions on their behalf.

10. Prepare messages and a Q&A. Draft key messages about the layoff or closing. They will be the outline for comments in person, meetings, news interviews, and news releases. Brainstorm worst-case questions that internal (including employees) and external audiences might ask, and answer them. Involve the management team to avoid overlooking a thorny issue.

11. Notify stakeholders before telling the media. List all who should hear about the cuts directly from you, and contact them. They will appreciate it and may provide essential support.

12. Tell everyone the same story. Give employees, customers, suppliers, government officials, analysts, and the news media—all your audiences—essentially the same information. Inconsistencies hurt credibility.

13. Make promises you can keep. Survivors of mass layoffs will want to know about future cuts. If no layoffs are planned, say so, but stress that the future cannot be foreseen nor guaranteed.

14. Expect the unexpected. Closings and layoffs, like all crises, are full of uncertainty. You are dealing with human beings and a lightning-speed grapevine. Adapt! Do your best so that your actions will be perceived as honorable and well-meaning.

15. Take care of the survivors. Treat them with the same respect, courtesy, and speed of notification as those who are fired. Don’t leave them hanging, wondering about their status or your appreciation of them. After all, you will need them to keep the business running.

Rick Amme is the owner of Amme & Associates, Inc.

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