Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

Cutting employees? Be sensitive! Here’s how

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Cutting employees? Be sensitive! Here’s how.Crisis planning

A large corporation announced closing a plant and laying off several hundred employees in this area. A local newspaper columnist criticized the company for insensitivity toward workers saying, “Notice you didn’t read such words as ‘regret,’ ‘sorry,’ or ‘pain’ in the carefully worded statements. It seems as though nobody bothers to pretend that they care about the formerly loyal workers.”

Conversely, I Googled the closing and found many sympathetic references to employees. Almost all news stories reported the company’s expressed hope that it could find a buyer for the plant who would also hire the work force. In two interviews, the company spokesperson said of employees, “They’ve done a great job today, and they’ve done a great job over the years, and it’s always difficult when you tell employees that you’re not going to have an opportunity for them going forward even though they’re doing a good job for you. So it’s just very tough.” The spokesperson said on TV, “Anything we can possibly do to help make the process easier for them to get reemployed we’ll do.”

That is hardly a company not expressing concern. Officials also briefed workers on the closing and efforts on their behalf before announcing the shutdown.

I am not naming the company or the columnist because a public dispute is not my point, especially with many shades of gray. For example: layoff news releases without reference to concern for employees can leave the wrong impression. On the other hand, a company’s actions and the words of its spokesperson can speak loudly.

After years of closings and layoffs by manufacturers everywhere this seems a good time to revisit how to deliver this bad news as gracefully as possible. While this is about simple human decency, there is a PR side because no company wants to appear unfeeling.

Before we review good steps to take in this awful situation, let’s admit that nothing a company does is going to stop the bad news headline. It shouldn’t. Institutions, communities, and lives are forever altered.

One complicating factor is that CEO’s in news releases usually are not talking to the community or workers, they are communicating with stakeholders or shareholders or the investment community about production improvements. When public companies announce plant closings or major layoffs often the stock price goes up as employee spirits crash. The grim irony of capitalism at work.

Let me list some of the basics of the layoff communications process:

  1. Avoid a “bolt from the blue” for employees
  2. Scrupulously plan
  3. Tell supervisors first
  4. Communicate fast
  5. Notify personally
  6. Tell it as though their mother has died
  7. Give employees a senior official to yell at or cry with
  8. Provide all the transition benefits you can afford
  9. Put benefits in writing
  10. Prepare messages and Q&A’s
  11. Notify stakeholders before telling the media.

As for the news release issue raised by the columnist at the beginning of this column here is my view. I think that a closing or layoff announcement generally should contain three major components:

  1. Brief statements of what is happening and why
  2. Expression of concern for employees and what will be done on their behalf
  3. More detail on why all of this is happening.

After helping companies layoff thousands of workers over the past dozen years I have noticed two constructive trends. First, most businesses now know how to make cuts sensitively while providing reasonable severance plans. They’ve watched each other and learned. Second, the dismantling of manufacturing is now so anticipated by workers that few are surprised when the ax falls.

Thin gruel but better than before.

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