Every CEO I’ve ever worked with would agree even the prospect of layoffs are one of the most painful parts of the job. It’s tough to think about, let alone announce.
No one likes to deliver bad news and CEO’s often find themselves ill-prepared. Even when they are prepared, however, it’s clearly a no-win situation. So it’s no surprise when these communications teeter into disaster.
That doesn’t make a botched layoff announcement acceptable, however. As painful as it is to deliver bad news, it pales to being on the receiving end. You can’t blame audiences if they seem overly critical or immune to your charms in these moments.
As CEO’s and other executives are woefully contemplating the possibility of layoffs next year, it may help to remember that while there’s no such thing as a great layoff announcement, you can definitely make it less painful for everyone involved.
Here are some tips.
In addition to explaining why the layoffs are necessary, be transparent about what led up to them—the good, the bad and the ugly. If there were miscalculations, people are not blind to them, so acknowledging them allows for closure and builds trust. In addition, some people may be skeptical that you are making the right decision, so the more clearly you walk people through your decision process, the more they are likely to see your point of view.
Your team—those leaving and those staying—need to know that the layoff impacts you, too, and that you feel the pain. Be up front about how it hurts you personally,
Don’t go to the extreme, however. On August 9, the CEO of HyperSocial, Braden Wallace, (now known as the crying CEO), posted a selfie of his teary face on LinkedIn, after lay-off announcement, which got mixed results. On one hand, the post went viral with some supportive comments, but many people—including some on his team—criticized him for being self-serving and self-centered. In the end, he had to publicly apologize for the whole debacle. While not many people would be tempted to go as far as Wallace, it's useful to remember that however upset you are, the people getting laid off are more upset, and they have a right to be. So, don’t make it about you. Instead, pivot the discussion back to your team. Acknowledge that people may need time to process the situation, as well as their own emotions, and that’s okay.
While the situation may technically not be your fault, people often feel wronged. Employees often report that even though a heartfelt apology doesn’t help their finances, it does soften the blow of the announcement. Whether it’s verbal or written, taking responsibility, acknowledging the impact on the entire workforce, and apologizing can go a long way.
On Nov 3, Stripe CEO, Patrick Collison announced a layoff of about 1,120 employees, which was 14% of their workforce. The entire email takes a genuinely regretful tone, discussing mistakes made by leadership as well as severance provisions to those being laid off.
His apology gets straight to the point: “We’re very sorry to be taking this step and John [Collison, co-founder and President] and I are fully responsible … We over-hired for the world we’re in.”
Layoffs lead to a labyrinth of uncertainty. The feeling of being out of control, mixed with a loss of income can ignite the Fight-Fight-Freeze response in a profound way. One of the best ways you can help is by spelling out exactly what people can expect in the next few days and weeks as they transition out of your organization, and what they can count on you for.
Side note: Many announcements have a “moving forward” section, filled with points from the PR/marketing team about how these painful lay-offs come with other painful cuts, but will ultimately ensure the fabulous long-term success of this phenomenal company. While no one can deny the importance of reassuring the public that your organization is strong, any disingenuous sounding corporate-speak will not accomplish that. The irritation it evokes, however, will detract from your genuine support.
Meta did a good job of creating clarity when it announced layoffs on Nov 9. There was clear and thorough information on how the company got to that point, the cost-cutting changes they made prior to the “last resort” layoffs and an outline of all the benefits for those being laid off. Their moving forward section also struck a good balance of support and sorrow for those leaving, and optimism for the those staying as well as the public.
5. Resources and support
The minute people find out they are being laid off, in addition to shock, there is confusion and overwhelm. Make sure they know up front what you will be doing for them. This can go a long way in easing the shock and eliminating some of the fear involved. Whatever you are offering in terms of severance, career transition services or even access to mental health counseling, let people know all of it. Tell them exactly what that entails and what steps they need to take, if any.
Lyft laid out support for departing team members in a very clear and easy-to-digest way in it’s announcement on November 3rd.
6. Personal attention
It’s not always possible to inform people about layoffs in one-one meetings, but in addition to general resources, create and announce times when they will have access to individual attention, whether it’s a call with management or HR, or even career counseling services. Create an opportunity for them to share concerns and ask questions. This goes a long way towards making people feel supported and valued, and demonstrating your investment to your team.
Remember this one? In December of 2021, Vishal Garg, the CEO of Better Holdco Inc. laid off 900 employees over Zoom. Leadership may have thought that a video announcement was the closest substitute to meeting in-person, and better than email. However, the event turned out to be nothing more than a mass group firing with people understandably feeling like sheep being led to slaughter. Employees and the public called it “cold” and “cruel”, among other things.
There needs to be a personal touch, with an opportunity for people to ask questions and feel heard. In his memo, Stripe’s Collison wrote, “We are going to set up a live, 1-1 conversation between each departing employee and a Stripe manager over the course of the next day.”
It may be hard to make someone feel valued while you’re showing them the door, but it helps to remind them that their contributions made a difference. Generalities and cliches won’t get the job done. If possible, include details. The more specific, the better.
Sometimes this can be one of the hardest parts for a leader to get just right. Once, while working on a speech delivering bad news (not layoffs), the CEO was having such a hard time expressing his appreciation to the staff—it looked fake and stiff, despite the fact that the words I’d written came directly from sentiments he expressed to me. I was about to embark on my fifth re-write when I discovered the real reason for his hold-back. He was afraid he would burst into tears, which sometimes caused his face to turn red on-camera, and the story would become about him. And that’s exactly what happened in our rehearsal, more than once. But by the time the real announcement came, he had his emotions more under control and his genuine empathy and appreciation came through in a way that truly touched people, didn’t embarrass him, and didn’t distract from his message.The moral of the story? It might be a process refining what you express and how you express it, but it’s worth the extra time.
On May 5 of 2020, AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky announced layoffs. His written announcement not only contained transparency, resources, clarity and empathy, he conveyed a generous, heart-felt thank you.
Towards the end of the announcement he writes,
"I am thankful for everyone here at Airbnb. Throughout this harrowing experience, I have been inspired by all of you. Even in the worst of circumstances, I’ve seen the very best of us. The world needs human connection now more than ever, and I know that Airbnb will rise to the occasion. I believe this because I believe in you."