How Not to Communicate Mass Layoffs

Posted on by Leave a Comment

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


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


Subscribe to our blog for regular HR insight and resources to support a changing workplace.

5 Signs You’re the Reason For High Employee Turnover

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Bad Manager by Mimooh, Wikimedia Commons At some point or another we’ve all had a terrible manager. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that made you roll your eyes and lock yourself in the storage room until you calmed down. Yes, that manager, the one who barked out commands, sent emails on a Sunday morning demanding an immediate reply, and never had a good word to say for all your hard work. If you’re like most people, this manager even caused you to change jobs. So, what happens when you wake …

4 Bad Summer Hiring Decisions

Posted on by Leave a Comment

The summer season is fast approaching, when the pool of great talent gets even deeper. As employers rely on summer hires more than ever, over the next few months recruiters and other hiring professionals face mounting pressure to enlist the best new workers for their teams. There’s an endless amount of recruiting tools and processes that help businesses select top talent. But when you’ve got hundreds of application packages to sort through, it’s often easier to start by identifying who you do not want to hire. As Matt Ferguson, the CEO of CareerBuilder, modestly …

Top Ten Performance Review Mistakes HR Professionals Make

Posted on by Leave a Comment

To try to boost employee performances, most businesses offer performance reviews on a regular schedule. Unfortunately, many managers and HR professionals never receive specific training on how to make a performance review useful and effective. As a result, performance reviews often end up having little impact on, well… anything at all. Here are the top 10 mistakes: Mistake #1: Vague feedback. Mistake #1: Too Vague Whether it’s a lack of preparation time, an inability to communicate effectively, or a fear of offending an employee, a lot of reviewers use vague language in their performance reviews. Worse yet, some reviews contain only numbers …

10 Ways to Make Your Employees Quit

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Employee retention is a challenge for many businesses. But for organizations with strong cultures, good compensation, impeccable environments and wicked perks, it can start to feel like employees don’t ever want to leave! If your profit margins are too high, your employees are too happy, or you’re just looking for a bit more of a retention challenge, here are 10 ways to get your employees to quit (don’t say we didn’t warn you!):1. Neglect all interpersonal relationships Make it clear that your employees are there for one reason: to work. They should make management look good, and …

9 Complicated Ways to Ruin Your Business

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Any half-decent human resources team is well aware of the value of maintaining positive relationships with employees. And there’s no shortage of great HR teams out there working hard to keep things running smoothly at their companies. Everyone talks about how to be the best. But what about the worst? You don’t have to look that far to find HR teams that are actually active threats the businesses they work for. Here are nine (needlessly complicated) ways to excel at being the absolute worst HR team around. If you have any sense at all, you won’t follow …

8 Ways to Be An Awful Manager

Posted on by Leave a Comment

People in leadership want to excel—that’s often how they grew to be leaders in the first place. Yet there are plenty of mistakes that overly-eager managers can make which are ultimately destructive to the work environment. If you’re a manager who wants to be known for doing everything right, you should absolutely avoid these 8 awful management practices:1. Baby Your Employees If you have someone on staff whose work isn’t cutting it, absolutely don’t tell them. Instead of helping them improve, simply extend deadlines, lighten workloads, and step up your own game. The rest of your …

12 Career-Ending Ways to Fire Employees

Posted on by Leave a Comment

There are few easy ways to break it to an employee that they’re being let go, but there are techniques that can help make the transition easier for everyone involved. The following 12 tips, however, won’t help you with that. Instead, they’re guaranteed to leave any former staff member fuming, put you at risk of countless lawsuits, and very possibly make sure that you’re the next one out the door. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.1. "Re: Downsizing—please clear your desks!" Firing an employee by email is fast, convenient, and almost completely devoid of …

Experience TribeHR for Yourself
Contact us to schedule a demo of TribeHR.

Book A Demo
The Latest from Workplace Tribes
A Thanksgiving Wish November 26, 2015
Translating 12 Modern Job Titles November 24, 2015
10 Signs You’re Disengaged at Work November 19, 2015
Working With People Who Have Disabilities November 17, 2015
Dealing With HR Contradictions November 12, 2015
Centered Leadership November 10, 2015
Downtime and Productivity November 05, 2015
HCM and the Quantified Organization November 03, 2015
Let The Masquerade Begin! October 29, 2015
Values Alignment and Fit October 27, 2015