What internal comms can learn from ‘inhumane’ mass layoff of UK ship workers

The shipping company laid off 800 seafarers with no notice last week, prompting massive public backlash and protests.

Last week, UK shipping company P&O Ferries laid off 800 ship staff with no notice, informing some of the employees in person and others via Zoom meetings.

Public outcry ensued, with many workers and families taking to the streets in English port cities to protest the move.

“After that two to three-minute call all the crew were made redundant,” Gary Jackson, an officer and a member of Britain’s largest transport trade union, told the BBC. “I’ve seen grown men crying on there because they don’t know where they’re going to go from today.”

The New York Times reports:

In an email to staff members on Thursday, Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O’s chief executive, said that the company was reducing its crewing costs by 50 percent to set the business up for growth. He said that P&O Ferries had entered a new partnership with an international crewing company, and that crew members from that company would staff ships affected by the change.

In a statement on Friday, P&O acknowledged that “for our staff, this redundancy came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families.” The decision was “a last resort,” the company said, adding that the business would not survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements.

Here are three comms lessons to be learned from P&O’s internal comms fumble:

1. Lead with respect and kindness in breaking bad news.

The P&O situation is reminiscent of Better.com’s firing fiasco in late 2021, when CEO Vishal Garg laid off 900 employees during a three-minute Zoom call.

In both instances, news of firings was shared with little to no respect for the employees. P&O’s plan to lay off hundreds of workers and replace them with cheaper labor sends the message that the company values its employees only in how much work they can do for as little money as possible. Treating your workers callously — even those who are on their way out the door — can build distrust among your remaining workforce and foster a culture of fear.

3. Remember that your internal comms can and will be scrutinized by the world.

P&O’s decision has come under fire from more than just comms experts. UK politicians, business leaders and even the Archbishop of Canterbury have decried the mass firing as “inhumane,” “disgusting” and “appalling.”

If you don’t take time to craft your internal messaging with care, an internal comms problem can quickly spiral into a PR problem — one that will scare off potential new employees and customers alike.

Here’s a useful primer on “mixternal comms,” the blurring of the line between internal and external communications.

4. Support your workers in times of company turmoil.

It’s unclear what steps P&O has taken to buffer its remaining employees against the shock of the firings and the ensuing scandal. The company still employs more than 2,000 workers in the UK — how is P&O supporting them?

When your organization is going through a highly publicized rough patch, it’s important to check in on your workers. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your workforce is aware of all relevant information before it reaches the press, otherwise you risk alienating otherwise loyal employees.

In some cases, media training for higher-level workers might be appropriate, depending on the amount of attention your company is receiving from the press.


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