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Are silent lay-offs getting louder?

Employee wellbeing is one of those ESG factors that tends to attract more headlines for bad behaviour than for positive action.

It’s certainly one that many companies would say they are committed to upholding and improving, and have rolled out comprehensive engagement programmes in a bid to attract and retain talent.

But when times are different, and companies have the challenge of letting people go, rather than persuading them to stay, how they behave can bring greater scrutiny.

This seems to be the case with the rise in firms encouraging employees to not communicate publicly when their roles have been made redundant. Consulting and accounting firm PwC was the latest to be caught up in the issue when it had to make a round of job cuts.

In a biting opinion piece this week, the Financial Times outlined that Silent lay-offs are rarely as quiet as bosses hope, “There is no quicker way to ensure corporate secrets are revealed than to insist they remain under wraps,” it said, taking aim largely at management consultancies and their handling of lay-offs.

But it is just one example of companies trying to encourage those losing their jobs to be quiet about it and doing so clumsily. A piece in The Week pointed to the practice becoming widespread in the technology sector. Another FT article a couple of months ago covered the rise of young workers taking to TikTok to fume after redundancy.

There are surely few areas of ESG where communications teams can make a more direct contribution to improving a company’s performance, to hold businesses to account over their behaviour and to ensure that the words are appropriate at an extremely sensitive time.

Yet all-too-often, communicators are not involved in the process. Yes we’re dealing with employment law here, so “nothing has yet been decided and these roles are under review” tends to be the party line during a consultation process. There is only so much that communications people can do to improve things there, and of course confidentiality must be respected.

But when it comes to the words that are applied once decisions have been made, communicators surely have to be called upon to ensure that the approach is in line with strategy and goals, and above all common sense. Anyone with reputation responsibility uppermost in their mind would likely not have supported a written request to affected employees to “not refer to the voluntary severance offer or the circumstances of leaving”.

Redundancies and restructuring are awful for the people impacted, but poor words can only make the situation worse for employee and employer. “Voluntary separations” fools no-one, and smacks of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling”.

Experienced communicators will all have their HR horror stories. I was once sent a press release for comment that had the headline ‘Company X announces execution of human capital element’. Comment I did.

As companies strive to look after their people in the face of political uncertainty and economic fallout, the words they use in difficult times will continue to be under the microscope. Doing the right thing reputationally, with transparency and compassion, may well be preferable to trying to lean on people to keep schtum.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at PR agency BOLDT.

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