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Early in my career, I had to tackle one of the toughest assignments that I’ve ever faced: a layoff of about 500 employees across two call centers. 

At the end of this heart-wrenching work, one employee provided feedback that has stuck with me, “While I’m not happy to lose my job, I appreciate how you shared the news and how I was treated.” Her words have formed my two core strategies when dealing with issues like this: make it personal and treat employees with respect.

Now that organizations are facing layoffs or furloughs, I thought a step-by-step guide may provide reassurance that you’re handling communication in the best way possible. 

Many of your decisions about key messages and internal communication tactics will depend on the breadth of your organizational change. Will it be a dozen people in a specific group or 10% of the entire workforce? And, of course, you’ll have to consider legal requirements—from notices to benefits continuation.

1. Develop a plan 

Because events happen very quickly when managing layoffs or furloughs, there’s often an inclination to react at a tactical level. But taking an informal approach leads to inconsistent messages, an active rumor mill and plunging productivity. A plan keeps those with communication roles focused, so steps aren’t missed and everyone leads with empathy.

Here are the core elements that your plan should include: key messages, tactics and timeline. 

Key messages. Your key messages or core content should state why this is important for the organization and focus on expressing concern for impacted employees. Be upfront about the details that haven’t been figured out, such as new organizational structures. But share the process to get there and high-level timing.

Here’s a question that serves as a good pressure test before you start communicating with employees: Do the key messages reflect our mission and values? 

Tactics. The communication channels you choose need to make your concern for impacted employees come to life. Here are a few tips to help you select the right mix: 

  • Focus on methods that allow employees to ask questions and express concerns. In other words, don’t inform impacted employees with a text, have a conversation.
  • Increase the visibility of leaders. We know from our research that visibility builds trust, so put leaders front and center—when employees are notified and after.
  • Create a one-stop shop for information, such as a dedicated web page or microsite, so employees can easily find accurate, up-to-date information. 

Timeline. Keep timing tight, so there’s no room for rumors to spread. If you’re dealing with many groups, each with a different impact, create a minute-by-minute flow where every role and action is mapped. 

And consider risks that may impact your timeline. For example, what if details get out before you’ve had conversations with a key customer? Scenarios are a helpful way to plan for risks, “If this happens, we’ll do this…”

2. Prep leaders, HR professionals and people managers

The extent of this step will depend on the scope of your layoff. Here’s what you need to accomplish with each communication role.

Leaders. Explain how you want leaders to be visible: Give them simple assignments, such as running a 30-minute Q&A and coaching their managers. Prepare leaders who will communicate directly with employees: help them stay focused on key messages, practice answering tough questions and flag the trap of making promises that can’t be kept. 

HR professionals. Build knowledge of the process and their roles, and prepare HR professionals to answer questions. I recommend conducting one-on-one conversations or a web-based session to prepare HR professionals and get their questions out in the open. Speaking points (to encourage empathy while dealing with administrative duties) and an FAQ document may also be helpful for this group.

People managers. Notify key people managers before others (even 10 minutes is helpful), so they’re ready to support employees by answering high-level questions. Help them understand how and when operational issues will be figured out. As with HR professionals, one-on-one conversations or a web-based session may be helpful. But, depending on timing, you may have to rely on a briefing email with an FAQ document. 

3. Notify impacted employees and share the news with all employees

Timing. Let’s start with sequence: impacted employees before everyone else or the other way around? The sequencing depends on the number of impacted employees. If it’s a small group that you can reach in less than an hour, I recommend starting with them, then immediately moving to the entire population. 

If the impacted group is large, start by sharing the news across the organization explaining the context, the notification process, what the organization will do to support impacted employees and what will happen after. Then begin notifying impacted employees. 

In some situations, it may make sense to communicate with impacted employees and all others simultaneously. For example, assigning communication responsibility to a senior leader at each location. 

Tactics. Now on to how. The gold standard for notifying impacted employees is face-to-face meetings, but as we know with COVID-19, that’s not always possible. The goal is to have impacted employees hear from someone directly, such as one-on-one calls or small, web-based meetings—not via email. 

If the impacted group is large and email is the only way to reach these employees efficiently, make the content personal and talk about how you’ll provide individual follow up, such as immediate conversations with local HR representatives, leaders and/or managers.

For the broader organization, consider a 15-minute (it will help leaders stay focused) webcast or email, followed by local meetings so employees get their questions answered. 

4. Ramp up communication with remaining employees

It may be tempting to consider communication complete when everyone has been notified, but there’s still work to do.

Help employees focus. Layoffs are distracting: those who remain worry about their jobs and how work will get done now that there are fewer people. Once again, keep leaders visible, but this time help them focus on the vision, how priorities have changed and new organization structures. Managers should be ready to explain how all of this impacts (or will impact) everyday work.

Measure. There’s evidence that says when you measure during a change, engagement is higher. Asking signals you care. Use spot surveys and focus groups to ask employees how they’re doing and for their feedback. 

Involve employees in solutions. With fewer resources, groups and teams need to figure out how to get work done. Involve employees in developing solutions. For example, host a workshop to identify challenges, then facilitate follow-up sessions with teams that solve those challenges. 

Report on progress. Employees need to understand that the layoff is having its intended effect. Share results and be honest about where the organization is getting stuck.

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