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The Internal Comms Review: How to communicate job losses effectively

Job cuts are relatively common occurrences in business, particularly in economic downturns. Within the past couple of weeks alone we have heard Nokia announce that it plans to cut between 9,000 and 14,000 jobs by the end of 2026, and Rolls-Royce report planned cuts of up to 2,500 jobs across the world.

Of course, these decisions are often essential for the future strength and in some cases even survival of the businesses in question. But that doesn’t make it any easier to tell the outside world, or even more importantly, those who stand to lose their jobs.

With corporate decision-making - including their treatment of employees - more scrutinised than ever, and news travelling faster than a speeding bullet, failing to handle these situations effectively can have costly ramifications.

Here are some key points to prevent the way you communicate a redundancy situation creating more problems for your organisation.

Prepare

Like any major announcement, internal or external, proper planning is essential. You must have a clear plan and agreed messaging on the rationale for the decision and how you are going to mitigate its impact on staff, to ensure a clear, consistent message is delivered. Ensure senior execs practice if they are delivering the message verbally, and that they are prepared for likely questions and ready to respond accurately, confidently and consistently.

Work closely with HR

Redundancy programmes have to follow strict consultation processes, so as an internal communicator it is vital to ensure that you are fully up to speed with these processes and the terminology that must be used. Senior management, HR, internal and external comms must be working closely in tandem to communicate a redundancy programme effectively.

Be open and transparent

The last thing employees need when they are being told about something that could have major negative ramifications for their lives and families is confusion. Ensure you are providing total clarity about the situation, its impact on them and the process that will follow. Keep the messaging simple and don’t obfuscate.

It’s about them, not you

Don’t let your spokesperson court sympathy by telling employees how difficult the decision has been for them or the company. It is the feelings of those under threat that are most important, and putting emphasis on anything else will only antagonise them. Your spokespeople should demonstrate compassion and empathy with those whose jobs are under threat, while remaining professional.

How you do it matters

Think about how the message is going to be delivered to staff. Not everyone gets this right. When Shopify announced it was laying off 20% of its global workforce in May, the CEO’s internal message to the company was published on the corporate newsroom, an external-facing channel. His post also had an insensitive tone, portraying those being laid off as part of a side-show to the company’s core mission, which reportedly ruffled a few feathers internally. If at all possible to deliver the news in person to your staff, this is preferable.

Listen

The prospect of losing their job is a big thing for an employee, and they should be afforded the right to engage and ask questions. Make sure you create the opportunity for them to do so, and that the company representatives are really listening to their questions and concerns.

Timing

With job loss announcements, timing is vital. You must ensure employees are told first so there is no risk of them hearing about the news on social media or from watching a TV report. If the workforce affected are shift workers or are based in different time zones, this will add more complexity that needs to be carefully considered.

Also avoid drip-feeding the bad news. When Meta announced layoffs in March of this year, Mark Zuckerberg revealed that different departments would hear about the fate of their respective teams in different timescales over the following months. Such an approach surely only created unease and uncertainty for a much longer period of time than necessary.

Dovetail with external comms

Coordination and consistency between internal and external comms is vital when announcing redundancies. The overall plan will need to consider external stakeholders such as trade unions and local MPs, and ensure everyone hears the news in an appropriate manner and order, to minimise the risk of you losing control of the message. Word travels so fast nowadays that sequencing comms with big time gaps is almost futile, so you should aim to communicate to different audiences as close to simultaneously as possible.

How you have communicated the announcement internally can also have direct consequences on how it is reported externally. For example, local TV news programmes often cover announcements of this nature, and however sensible the reasons for the company’s decision, a local TV report is only ever likely to be shown through the lens of the distraught workers, often being interviewed outside the workplace. I recently advised on such an occurrence for a manufacturing firm, and when a local TV crew turned up outside the factory, the company sent someone out to offer them a cup of tea and an interview with the CEO. The unexpected warmth and openness led to a sympathetic showing. Had they not taken that approach, and had they not delivered the news to employees sensitively, it would not be difficult to imagine a scenario with livid employees conducting interviews outside the factory gates, completely changing the narrative.

Support those impacted

Push to ensure the organisation does what it can to support those affected with routes to re-employment, whether elsewhere in the business if possible, or externally with the help of training or employment organisations, and make sure these provisions are clearly communicated. Also ensure that once the announcement is made, managers don’t disappear. They should continue to be available to listen to and support impacted employees.

Don’t forget those who are left

Staff who are not impacted by the redundancy process will still be negatively impacted in other ways, and often those who remain can jump ship after their colleagues have been laid off. Now is the time to talk to them, give them reassurance and allay their concerns. Convince them that they have a bright future staying with you, and make a compelling case for the future of the business and their role in it.

Job losses must be communicated in a way that retains the respect and trust of those who have lost their jobs, and those who haven’t.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written by Ian Morris, director, communications, SEC Newgate UK.

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