Layoffs looming? How to avoid the miscues of these corporate giants
Issues Management Reputation Management

Layoffs looming? How to avoid the miscues of these corporate giants

By Kevin Shinkle

It’s 2022. Have we learned nothing when it comes to communications around corporate blowups – especially when they mean mass firings?

The recent communications from technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter and once high-flying crypto giant FTX suggest the answer is no.

Consider some of these recent beauties.

  • Twitter fired half its workforce or some 3,700 people, mostly by email. Employees were told if they got one message in the subject line, they were staying. If they got another, they were out. Unfortunately for Twitter and the firestorm that is threatening the viability of the company, owner Elon Musk gutted the communications team so they weren’t around to help.
  • Meta followed a few days later with an announcement that 11,000 people were fired – a move that inspired social media posts (ironically) like this one. “Just woke up to find out I had been laid off by Meta/Instagram from an email. No warning and was told recently by a lead that the team I was working on was high priority and wouldn’t be affected. Company wide layoffs via email. Classy.”
  • Then there’s the strange case of crypto wunderkind and easy-come, easy-go billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried who said as his company, FTX, was collapsing that he had “f—ed up and should have done better.” I’m all for CEOs accepting responsibility, but those words seemed a little ingenuine given the magnitude of what happened and rang a little hollow to all those people whose savings were obliterated or the thousands of employees who are going to lose their jobs. At least SBF admitted that he should have communicated more.

Now, I get it. These companies and their executives are under a great deal of stress. There is no easy way to do a mass firing. And every situation and workplace culture are different.

But with a recession looming and companies big and small expected to slash jobs in coming months, there are certain principles to remember. Here are some that I’ve learned from developing communications plans for layoffs, covering job-cutting companies as a journalist (remember Chainsaw Al?) and from sitting behind a desk, myself, letting people go.

  • Be ready: Any chief communications advisor or HR director should always be aware that workforce crises happen and should always have a basic playbook they can go to when needed.
  • Be communicative (part 1): Companies love to tout what they’re doing for their workforce when times are good. But few talk to employees when things start to slide. Unless it’s an extreme case – and Twitter qualifies — employees should rarely be surprised by a layoff.
  • Be personal (when possible): There’s an argument that firing people by email is unavoidable when you let thousands of people go quickly. It may simply be impossible for example to have that many personal meetings, and it often makes sense from a cost-benefit analysis to rip the bandage off quickly. That said, these are people we’re talking about! There is no substitute for looking someone in the eye and explaining to them why this is happening. It doesn’t ease the immediate pain, but it’s the right thing to do, and it sends an ever-lasting message to the remaining workforce.
  • Be humane: Listen, nobody ever feels good about these situations. But there are steps that companies can take, such as showing empathy and helping those who are being let go.
  • Be communicative (part 2): Those left behind – as well as customers, investors and other stakeholders – need to hear quickly and clearly what’s next. They need to know that there’s a clear path to success – even if it’s not immediate.

None of these should be earthshattering for seasoned executives and communications professionals. These steps rely on equal measures of common sense and empathy. But it’s remarkable how many times they’re forgotten or ignored. Remember, in the heat of the moment, C-suite executives need smart, clear-headed guidance from the communications team – or the agency advising them. It’s in these moments where our expertise is at its most valuable.

Kevin Shinkle

Kevin Shinkle