How to communicate after a layoff
Morale is low and people are feeling nervous, here’s how to start getting back on track
This must be the summer of layoffs. I know of at least four people at four different organizations that were laid off and it’s only July. As a communications professional my brain starts to think about how layoffs come about, how they are communicated (before, during and after) and, of course, the impact on teams after a layoff is done.
There’s a lot out there about how to let people go, but the story doesn’t end there. A communications team still needs to work with leadership to connect with the people that are left — “the survivors.”
After the dust settles, there are a lot of questions and a lot of emotions. Tensions may be high, especially if layoffs were handled poorly. So how do we help our organizations restore trust and start slowly rebuilding morale through communications? Here’s what I’m learning:
Gather as much information as possible
Try to get a sense about how the layoffs happened from many different perspectives. This means getting a meeting with execs and asking co-workers across the organization how they are doing. We need to get a pulse on the organization’s morale after such a major change.
Be ready for and willing to engage in difficult conversations
This isn’t the time for your CEO to hide out or go on vacation. It’s just the opposite. If communications were strong prior and during the layoffs keep them coming. If communication was poor, now is the time to try to regain your footing in a genuine way. It’s important to create space for difficult conversations and really hearing what staff have to say. People don’t want to hear more talking points, they want to know the real deal about why the layoffs happened, how people were chosen to be laid off and whether they can expect to keep their jobs. Honesty and clarity about how layoffs are impacting workloads and job outlooks are important and should be handled with care. These conversations are best with small groups or one on one with direct supervisors. The communications team should coach supervisors on how to gently gain feedback from teams to guide people through this change.
Avoid overly hyped messaging
Your leadership may want to have people “looking forward and focusing on the positive”. That might be needed down the line but right now isn’t the time for an upbeat newsletter or “rah rah” message from the CEO/Executive Director. You’ll just come off tone def and insensitive.
Bridge the gap
If you are looking for stories to tell find narratives that bridge the gap between what happened and looking forward. For instance, if you had major budget problems find out if there is a story to tell about how those problems are being corrected. If a team has been downsized try to understand how this impacts the organization. Is there a story to tell there too? Sensitivities are high right now so you’ll want to be considerate of how people feel engaging in having their stories told. Still, these bridge stories should help to acknowledge things are not great right now but here is how we are correcting the course.
Offer up resources
Another approach is offering up resources. Ask HR for information about employee health services or share articles about healthy ways to deal with a layoff. Topics to consider include mindfulness at work, how to support friends that are laid off and ways to minimize stress with increased workloads. It’s not a perfect solution but at least you’re acknowledging things aren’t business as usual
Encourage the C Suite to communicate consistently
Sit down with your execs and find out what type of communication they’re comfortable with at this stage, then make it easy as easy as possible for them to connect with staff again. Some ideas I like include:
- Quarterly coffee with the CEO
- Monthly video calls or in person forums a la AMA style (Ask me Anything)
- Executive blog with weekly or biweekly posts
The goal here is to have open honest, communications that are work both ways. Our goal is to allow people to be heard and gain their feedback on how to move forward. A feedback loop can help to rebuild trust and give light to how departments are coping with reduced staff. If your exec doesn’t see this as a priority, ask if an ambassador can help with these communications on their behalf. Right now people need to hear from leadership often.
Make room for informal conversations
There’s always messaging around sensitive events like layoffs but that messaging will only take you so far. At some point you need to start rebuilding morale and connecting with employees in uncomplicated ways.
I’ve heard of CEOs going on listening tours which are okay. I think a better approach is actually offering up help. Have leadership sit down with employees to understand how their jobs are changing and what support they can lend. Try to make the conversations less intimidating and more on the helpful side. Suggest and schedule visits with staff in their own element. Coach your leader on how to strike up conversations based on curiosity and a willingness to understand how the organization works from every level. Your leadership could even help out in a department for a few hours a month and be in the trenches. There’s something magnetic about a leader who is willing to stand side by side with their teams.
Put it in a plan All of the ideas and strategies we come up with for post layoff communications need to be put in place so they actually happen. Things should be thoughtful and well timed. By creating a roadmap for leadership your communications team has a better chance of setting expectations, collaboration and the opportunity to regularly impact communications efforts on morale.
By taking proactive steps around post layoff communications and measuring how well things work, you can be part of your organizations transition to a better future and show real value of communications in times of major change.