Crisis Management: Fired employees – treat it like a family death: Crisis communications
Once again it was my sad duty to help a client lay off a great many employees. The plan was to prepare senior supervisors and managers to explain to workers how the ax would fall. I was ready with message points and explanations when two senior individuals said to me, “We already know all of that information. There is one thing we don’t know. How are we going to help our colleagues cope? They don’t really think this is going to happen to them. They’re in denial. Tell us what to do.”
Here was my response, the advice I recommended they implement after the bad news was first announced.
Paraphrasing now, I said, “Deal with your employees like they have experienced a death. Think about encounters with death in your family. Relatives suffering the most want to tell the story of how the loved one passed on. They may tell you and others the tale of loss more than once. Patiently, compassionately, you let them. When a relative is mourning, what they most need is a shoulder to cry on, someone to ventilate with, but most of all they need you to listen. They don’t want you to say that the loved one is in a better place. They don’t want you to say it will all work out for the best. They want you to feel their pain.
“In the case of the layoff, for those who are fired your role is much the same as that of a caring relative. At first, they don’t want you changing the subject to separation benefits or defending the company. They need you to hear their suffering. They want a listener. So, as you would with your family, listen and be human. And as in dealing with death, each time they reveal their feelings, the pain eases just a bit.”
I have said it before, but I always remember a senior vice president for a manufacturer that closed scores of plants. He would sit in a small office and meet a parade of laid-off workers one at a time. Anger, sadness, crying, yelling: he heard it all. Every hour or so, he would walk out of the building and down the street for a few blocks to relieve the tension from the anguish. He would return and listen some more. Companies should always provide such an emotional touchstone after major cutbacks.
There is one other significant role that I suggested that my clients fulfill, “Be there to answer the questions. After the initial emotion subsides they will want to know the intricacies of how their professional demise will play out. They will probably have half-heard the initial announcement by executives. The layoff announcement itself often shocks, dulls the senses and many facts simply don’t get through. That’s where you come in. There will be myriad questions about who will be cut first, what will the criteria be for the order of layoff, when will the company know the actual schedule, what will be the benefits, severance, health care. What about possible early retirement? What if they want to leave early? Can they transfer to other facilities?
And so it was for this client. Senior management had two critical missions after announcing the big layoff: listen and explain, listen and explain.
There is more, to be sure, but I believe that these actions will most benefit the unfortunate job losers.
I truly hope you will never be compelled to play such a role in a large cutback. Even more, I hope you will never need someone to listen to you after the ax has fallen.