Christine Barney|Mar 20, 2020

We are entering the stage where many of our clients will find it necessary to conduct layoffs in order to streamline expenses or even survive until business returns to normal.  While good communications is always critical in the planning and implementation of job actions, the current situation makes this even more complicated. Unlike more predictable adverse business conditions (e.g., bankruptcies, natural disasters), the COVID-19  pandemic comes not only with uncertainty about its duration, but also with emotional baggage about personal safety. These added stresses enhance the “survivors’ guilt” of those who remain and can dramatically impact the organization’s ability to go forward through the crisis and reach recovery.

How can we as communicators help clients explain the need to make sometimes severe cuts in staff across the organization?  First know that we have done this, a lot. We understand the shock a company goes through when unexpected and large cuts or furloughs are required, and we’ve been very successful in helping our clients mitigate impacts while laying the proper groundwork for recovery.  So what to keep in mind? 

  • While you may not have much time to plan, planning still matters:  We must speak with senior leadership to understand all the impacts that could affect every stakeholder so the news does not have unintended consequences.  A message playbook should be created to ensure consistency.
  • Work hand-in-glove with the legal team. Any layoffs or furloughs should be done with insights not only from HR, but the legal team to protect the company from outside actions.  For example, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988 (WARN) is a US labor law requiring most employers with 100 or more employees to provide a 60 calendar-day advance notification of plant closings and mass layoffs of employees. The law and its fines can be waived for unforeseen events – like many are calling COVID-19. California already lifted its own state law governing the layoff notice, given the national emergency.
  • Tone and style matters:  Your client’s reputation will be cemented by how they handle this crisis.  It is a defining moment for all of us.
    • Who delivers the news matters. Determine the appropriate spokesperson and conduct intensive training on message delivery.
    • Provide accurate information – describe the change taking place, why this course is necessary and how it impacts the remaining organization.
    • Speak directly, in plain English and with sensitivity – acknowledge resistance, anger and loss.  
    • Create an atmosphere that shows how we are supporting those who are leaving as well as those who remain and are dealing with the fallout of the cuts.
    • Listen. In these situations, we set up two-way communication channels to gather feedback from all stakeholders including media, investors and vendors.  Each audience can be a voice in traditional/social media that contributes to enhancing or destroying the brand’s reputation. 

Today’s situation may seem more forgiving to brands who literally couldn’t have seen this option on the horizon 90 days ago.  However, it is also more extreme given how many will be following this same path. The fatigue that is likely to come from wave after wave of layoff announcements means organizations will have to work harder to ensure their remaining people/investors/stakeholders are not swallowed by pessimism, and they can chart a path to recovery.  This is a time where solid communications counseling can make a difference. Our corporate communications counselors stand ready to support you and your clients. 


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