Traffic-light colors inform employees of job status

Is this the worst internal communications idea you’ve ever heard of? Or is it a stroke of genius? And what is that red light supposed to symbolize? That your whole life stops if you’re laid off?

Green light! Your job is safe. Red light! Not so fast.

That’s how the Daily Telegraph characterized the way Everything Everywhere, the name for T-Mobile and Orange’s joint telecommunications venture in the United Kingdom, let employees know last month whether their jobs were safe in a big reorganization. The changes could lead to up to 30 percent of middle managers losing their jobs, the Telegraph reports.

“The presentations were made in public in front of between 30-60 colleagues,” reporter Rupert Neate wrote. “Some employees are thought to have had no idea that their jobs were at risk before the humiliating public meeting.”

In an e-mail response to, Everything Everywhere called that characterization “sensationalist and insensitive.”

A company spokeswoman said managers met individually with employees and “the full implications of these changes were explained to them personally.”

Although the company got “at least part of it right” by informing employees of the possibility of layoffs before the ax fell, use of the color codes was “ill advised” and showed “a great deal of poor taste and insensitivity to employees,” says Robert Holland, owner of Holland Communication Solutions in Richmond, Va.

“For one thing, it reduces a person’s livelihood to ‘green for go and red for stop,'” Holland says. “For another, it’s insulting. These people are adults. They don’t need a picture to explain what’s happening to them. Give it to them straight. The first commandment of communicating a layoff is to treat people with dignity.”

But the company spokeswoman said it’s standard practice.

“One of the many ways that we indicate the extent—or otherwise—of change is by using an indicative visual color code,” she said.

Other options

Tripp Frohlichstein, president of Media Masters Inc., said the company should have remembered that perception is reality.

“While it may have seemed like a good idea by the people who created it, if you’re on the receiving end, it could be construed as insensitive,” he says. “It’s got to be from the audience’s point of view, not yours.”

For example, companies such as Zappos and Cake Financial have turned to blogging about layoffs in efforts to be more transparent with their employees and the public. Starbucks has used e-mails with extensive information about the layoffs and departmental town halls in the aftermath of their layoffs.

Not the full story

The Everything Everywhere spokeswoman said the color-coded visual aids given to employees were part of a “range of tools to ensure that our people know exactly what is proposed for their teams and others across the business.”

The color-coded slides were part of informational packets given to each employee, and all the changes were explained in person.

Read the full statement.

That was not what was portrayed by the Telegraph, however. The paper, Holland says, should have delved deeper.

“Either someone at Everything Everywhere didn’t have the chance or didn’t opt to give the details to the reporter, or the reporter completely ignored or didn’t ask for the rest of the story,” he says. “Somebody somewhere didn’t do their job as well as they should have.”
If the facts of the Telegraph‘s story are true, “it’s tough to find anything in the approach to defend,” says Becky Graebe, internal communications manager at SAS.
“I can’t think of a more intimate message between an employer and an employee than sharing the possibility that one’s job, future career with the company and livelihood is at stake,” she says. “This is a time for to be genuine, transparent, intimate conversations instead of resorting to any type of approach which could appear gimmicky or canned.”

Rick Amme, of the crisis consulting and media consulting firm Amme and Associates, says it’s “hard go give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down” to Everything Everywhere based on the conflicting reports from the Telegraph and the company itself.

“If the company notified its employees primarily through meetings, as it claimed, that was appropriate,” he said. “Using materials to convey what is happening and maximize understanding could also have been appropriate for a company with this many employees.”

However, if, as the Telegraph story claims, everyone was made aware of everyone else’s job status, that could be a problem, Amme says.
“The question is whether employees’ confidentiality rights were protected,” he says.

6 dos and 1 don’t for layoffs

Rick Amme, of Amme and Associates, advises:

DO plan meticulously. “Plot every step of a closing or layoff announcement like a complex military maneuver.”

DO rip off the Band-Aid quickly. “Tell employees quickly to minimize the period of uncertainty.”

DO talk to employees personally. “Employees should hear it in person from a manager and not via outsiders, e-mail, telephone, mail, or the media.”

DO show sympathy. “Plant closings and layoffs are life altering, so pass the word with the same sensitivity of conveying news of a death.”

DO provide all the benefits you can and set them out in writing. “Transition assistance is humane and gives you something constructive to say.”

DO keep your message consistent. “Inconsistencies hurt credibility.”

DON’T surprise your employees. “Regularly brief employees on the condition of your business so that a cutback does not blindside them.”

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