How Not to Communicate Mass Layoffs

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There is never a great way to communicate about mass layoffs, but there are better ways and worse ways to do it. Microsoft’s EVP, Stephen Elop chose one of the worst. After Microsoft’s initial announcement of up to 18,000 layoffs, Elop followed up with a rambling memo, reminiscent of a Dilbert strip, which eventually came to the point of announcing 12,500 of those laid off would be his people as part of the “right-sizing” of Nokia Devices and Services. Here’s how Elop’s memo rates on the essential elements you’d expect to see when an executive shares really bad news. And it isn’t pretty.

Defend the Dream, InSapphoWeTrust, Flickr

Planning

While the memo talks a lot about the new strategic direction Microsoft plans to take, there is no sense that any degree of preparation went into how news of the layoffs would be communicated or whether any planning of the actual process was undertaken. Mass layoffs often have a devastating effect on employees who are let go as well as those who remain. Messaging about layoffs should be carefully planned and executed to minimize damage.

The way Elop communicates about the layoffs to his team seems almost off-hand. The actual loss of jobs is not mentioned until the final few paragraphs of a memo that starts with an off-the-cuff “Hello there” and finally gets to the painful point of what the company truly plans with this sentence:

“We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year.”

If this memo was part of an overall planned communications strategy, someone missed the boat. Email is not the right medium for sharing information like this and burying the point in a pile of company propaganda will only alienate employees and add to their pain.

Compassion

Elop doesn’t seem to have a lot of concern for the employees who will shortly be out of a job. Rather than demonstrating empathy for the situation his employees will face, he actually comes across as excited about many of the impending changes. For example, he writes:

“With more speed, we will build on our success in the affordable smartphone space with new products offering more differentiation. We’ll focus on acquiring new customers in the markets where Microsoft’s services and products are most concentrated. And, we’ll continue building momentum around applications.”

Darren Dahl, in his article A Better Way of Conducting Layoffs writes: “There is one certain outcome resulting from any layoff: people will be upset and vulnerable, particularly when the person has done their job well but is just a victim of the numbers game.”  People being down-sized deserve to be treated with compassion, a trait noticeably absent in Elop’s approach.

Dignity

Even after dropping the “12,500 layoffs” bombshell, Elop switches right back to evangelizing about the future success of the company. In doing so, he minimizes the impact of the layoffs and leaves the reader feeling insignificant and overlooked; for all intents stripping them of their dignity. In fact, as the following excerpt shows, he sees the downsizing as an opportunity for the company rather than the kick in the teeth it is to those who’ll be let go.

“As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails. Collectively, the clarity, focus and alignment across the company, and the opportunity to deliver the results of that work into the hands of people, will allow us to increase our success in the future.”

Really - difficult for the company? Does Elop honestly expect employees who are treated with casual indifference to care about how hard the layoffs will be for Microsoft or about the company’s future success?

Respect

The best way to show respect for employees is to be straight with them. By focusing on what matters to the company, using euphemisms such as “right-sizing” and making it clear that he does not feel the pain he is inflicting; Elop demonstrates an appalling lack of respect for his people. Even more blatantly disrespectful is his attempt to pre-justify the bad news with a lengthy discussion of Microsoft’s planned strategic realignment.  

According to Harvard Business Review, when it comes to communicating about layoffs, one should always give the most pressing information first: “When the question on everyone’s mind is “Is there bad news ahead?” let them know. Don’t bother starting with a discussion of the competition, market forces, or the financial environment; no one will pay attention until their most critical question is answered.”  To do otherwise is inconsiderate and disrespectful.  

Finally, it is respectful to afford people the courtesy of face-to-face communication with their direct manager and some privacy to express their individual reactions and ask the personal questions they need to ask. Regardless of challenging logistics, it is not respectful to tell people about mass layoffs via office memo.

Support

When employees are hit with this kind of news they commonly run through a gamut of emotions that mirror the grief process. They also have questions about the overall process, the immediate impact, their future, and more. How a company supports its departing employees in a layoff situation makes a huge difference to those who are laid off as well as to those who remain. Providing support for survivors of layoff is also essential to maintaining morale going forward.

The only mention of support in Elop’s lengthy memo is this sentence:

“These decisions are difficult for the team and we plan to support departing team members with severance benefits.”

This one inadequate sentence is further weakened by Elop’s focus on the challenge to his team and the company rather than on the distress of departing employees.

Employee focus

A misdirected focus is the most glaring problem with Elop’s memo and the reason he missed the mark by such a wide margin. One of the few times that an Executive should forget about what matters to the company and focus on what matters to employees is when those employees are being down-sized out of their jobs. A mass layoff is never pursued lightly and the business case for such a decision is usually strong. While the business rationale is important to management, business analysts and shareholders, employees who are about to be laid off have more pressing personal concerns and need to know those concerns are being addressed.   

Elop’s memo is so focused on the company’s needs and what they hope to accomplish going forward that he completely misses the mark with the employees he’s laying off. Regardless of how committed and loyal they may have been up to this point, employees being down-sized out the door don’t care how the company plans to revitalize itself once they’re gone. They may come around over time if they’re treated well. If not, they’ll always mentally associate the company with the resentment and bitterness triggered by a botched layoff.

It’s hard to tell whether Microsoft will handle its mass layoffs well or leave a trail of discord and a horde of disaffected ex-employees in their wake. If Stephen Elop’s memo is indicative of their approach, however, the consequences of this “right-sizing” may haunt them for some time.

 

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