It’s a tough reality: As the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have halted business worldwide, many organizations have resorted to layoffs to stay afloat. Layoffs disrupt operations by removing capable hands, but perhaps more important, they disrupt employees’ emotions and productivity.

Leaders are often faced with emotional employees. The people being let go are upset—wanting to know why, and those remaining are concerned—wondering what’s next.

How can organizations help employees understand the change, stay focused on the job and feel confident in the business strategy?

The answer is straightforward: strong leadership. During times of change, employees turn to their leaders for clarity and direction. That’s why it’s critical for leaders to take charge, share a clear path forward and answer the difficult questions.

Of course, that job is anything but easy. That’s where communicators can step up to ease the pressure. Here are five strategies communicators can use to help leaders engage employees during layoffs.

Provide key messages

During a layoff, communication needs to be direct and transparent, but also empathetic. Leaders need to honor the past contributions of employees being laid off, while sharing a clear path forward for employees who remain.

Too often, leaders get mired in the details. They want to explain every difficult decision made and provide layers of context to validate their actions. But all that exposition buries the main point—the big news that employees want to hear.

When supporting a communicator at a school system, my firm analyzed the leader’s first email to staff about upcoming budget concerns, which was meant to signal that organizational changes were coming. Unfortunately, the leader spent four paragraphs providing background and flowery language thanking employees for their contributions. So by the fifth paragraph when the budget news showed up, employees were no longer paying attention. As a result, when the time came to announce layoffs, employees were blindsided and understandably upset.

The solution? We helped the communicator develop key messages that focused on what was changing (the layoffs), who was impacted, why changes were necessary and what employees needed to do next. That made it easy to help the leader organize his next email by key points.

Coach leaders to communicate with empathy

Layoffs elicit many emotions: anger that jobs are being lost, disappointment that the company isn’t performing well, fear that more layoffs may come and of course, sadness for those who have lost their livelihoods.

How to calm all these negative feelings? Demonstrate empathy and reliable leadership. Showing empathy means connecting with another person and trying to understand how he or she might be feeling. If your leaders aren’t showing employees they care, employees won’t know whether they do.

Coach your leaders to act with humanity. Here are a few methods:

  • Tell a personal story. Perhaps it’s about the leader experiencing a layoff during her early career, or the conversation he/she held with a regional manager to make decisions about his staff. Sharing an anecdote reminds employees that the leader is like everyone else—he/she has opinions and feelings and cares for colleagues.
  • Show emotion. Coach leaders to speak with inflection and put their feelings on display. Being vulnerable shows courage, and perhaps more important, it signals to employees that the leader isn’t a stony-faced dictator, but a real human in a tough situation.
  • Acknowledge employees’ concerns. People feeling anger or sadness want to be heard. They want validation that what they’re going through is hard. Try phrases that recognize employees’ feelings, like “I know this is difficult” and “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.”
  • Be supportive. One of the most important things a person needs when dealing with negative emotions is support. Leaders can show they care by offering an ear—”I’m happy to listen any time”—or asking “How can I help?”

Develop FAQs

When bad news happens, employees have questions, and leaders need to be prepared with answers. Do your leaders a favor and develop a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) so they can study up and be ready to field an open Q&A session with confidence.

Be sure to delve deep and answer the hard questions, not just the straightforward ones. Imagine what your most outspoken employee would ask and go from there. For example, when asking “why,” some employees might simply wonder, “Why do we have to lay off employees?” But your leaders will also encounter employees who demand, “Why did you eliminate job X but not job Y? That’s not fair.”

Give as much detail as possible when answering, and don’t sugarcoat the truth. Employees expect to be treated as adults. They want to understand what the changes mean for their department, and ultimately, their own job.

FAQs help leaders provide the right level of detail: enough to respectfully inform employees, but no confidential information or personal details of affected employees.

Increase leaders’ visibility

We know from our research that visibility builds trust. When layoffs are announced, employees want to know that senior leaders stand behind their decisions and are steering the ship as best they can.

Support your leaders to communicate more frequently, both during and after the layoffs by:

  • Sending a company-wide message—an email, video message or even a virtual meeting—to announce that layoffs are happening just before they begin. This will set the tone that the senior leader is taking ownership.
  • Keeping employees informed throughout the day of announcements via department and team meetings hosted by leadership. Refer to the key messages and FAQs you developed to ensure consistency.
  • Considering an end-of-day recap. For a manufacturing company, we supported the communication team to host a late afternoon virtual meeting with the CEO to debrief on what had happened. He explained which departments had lost colleagues, reiterated the reasons layoffs were necessary and shared a vision for the future. The communicator heard feedback that employees appreciated the clarity after an upsetting day.
  • Keeping communication going after layoffs have occurred. Develop a cadence of emails, intranet posts and other push communication channels to signal to employees that information is forthcoming. Encourage leaders to schedule regular check-ins with their teams to help them navigate the change, such as shifting priorities or coverage needs.

Facilitate two-way interaction with leaders

People process change by discussing it, asking questions and having a chance to accept the new state of affairs. That’s why it’s important to give employees opportunities to talk with leaders about difficult situations like layoffs.

So give employees plenty of open forums to discuss what happened and share their emotions. Have department and function heads hold Q&A sessions or online chat forums where they spend 100% of the meeting answering employees’ questions. (This is the perfect moment to break out that FAQ sheet.)

Coach managers to hold small group chats with their staff. Give managers tips on holding meaningful conversations and listening to employees’ concerns. And encourage managers to share any issues with leadership, so problems can be dealt with.

When leaders are empowered to communicate confidently with their employees, even in the most difficult of situations, they’ll find that employees appreciate the candor, the empathy and the trust. And employees will reward that effort by giving trust in return.

Originally published on

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