Best Practice

Lay-offs are a reality but communicating redundancies badly is a leadership choice

Businesses notoriously don’t handle redundancies well.

Ask your friend who has just been made redundant: How did it go for them?

We’ve all heard the one about the text being sent on a Friday at 8 pm, the news being delivered in a car park, on a fire escape, not being told at all, and only realizing when you got blocked trying to log in.

It’s always how it’s communicated that is cited as the grievance, not what is being communicated. People can usually accept business change, they often know it is coming. But how the story gets told to them is how it gets judged.

So is this an internal communications issue?

A bit like when the employee survey comes back and says ‘communication needs improving’ and everyone turns to the comms team and says ‘good luck’.

Internal communications is rarely the problem of internal communications teams.

How to help line managers become better communicatorsDownload for free

The first rule of the IC Club – you can’t take any of this personally.

The influence of internal communication specialists has long been debated. And now with internal communications in the full spotlight, as lockdown has already shown, organizations are seeing that having good communication practices are essential.

Whether an organization has an internal communications team or not, internal communications happen.

So the role of an IC specialist is always that of the curator, the adviser, the amplifier – and sometimes the secret sculptor of content. When redundancies are being announced the communications specialist will be called upon at some point to take one of those roles.

  • You might be brought in early and help shape the organizational announcement.
  • You might be a last-minute thought to post the message on the intranet.
  • You might be heard, you might be ignored. Your job is to try.
  • There is only one aim when communicating redundancies: Be a human.
  • We could expand a little more and add be a human, be fair and be kind.

None of these things often appear in communication objectives and yet these are the things that make the biggest difference when it comes to communicating redundancies. None of these things cost money and yet not doing these things will cost the business in the long term. So what can the communications team do?

1. Help the CEO & senior management shape the message

When redundancies are being made there is usually already an increased tension internally. Changes are in response to performance, and when senior managers aren’t delivering the rest of the business feels it too.

On top of the pressure to make changes and deliver, thinking about the people involved get lost. Communication comes in to fill the gap.

Some businesses do better than others. Some CEOs do outstanding, compelling messages to all staff. The recent announcement from Brian Chesky at Airbnb was a masterclass in clear communications from the center

Deliveroo senior management has shown leadership, the Virgin Atlantic CEO is putting people first. But that’s not usually where it hurts.

2. Support managers, focus on the people breaking the news to individuals

It hurts at local level. It hurts when it comes to how an individual is told and treated. And how often does the senior management team believe their work is done once the CEO message goes out?

The challenge isn’t the CEO message. Yes, that is foundational, but the real difference is made in the moment of breaking news to the face of a real human. The moment of contact (at the moment online or over the phone).

It’s always a shock to hear the news you are being made redundant. The way someone is treated when being made redundant becomes part of that business infrastructure and legacy. The ones left behind watch how people have been treated.

The ones that had to deliver the news are carrying the guilt, and the pressure to move on and now deliver.

Those who are departing are now future brand ambassadors, customers, consumers. They are future employees when you need them back, future suppliers. Managers need support to do this well. Most of us (all?) do not enjoy delivering bad news.

And we all live with the paranoia that we turn into David Brent when delivering the news. But most of us (all?) want to do the best we can.

So why does it go wrong? We panic. We think about ourselves more than the person we are telling. We don’t know how to do a good job.

When communications resource is focused on supporting managers, through toolkits, training, coaching, advice, the total sum of all the individual/team conversations equals how well the company handled the redundancy program.

Making people redundant is not just a communications process. It’s a reflection of the organization as a whole, its values, its purpose, its leadership.

It’s about brand values, wellbeing, and mental health, operational excellence, and customer experience. All those headlines that we see on business plans are not excluded when it comes to putting those philosophies and ethos into practice during times of redundancy. In fact, they are amplified.

People leaving the business are leaving a legacy.

3. Being the agitator that reminds the business of what it stands for

This is the time to truly test those brand values – do you really live them, believe in them, deliver them? Even when the pressure is on? The best brand values help you through the storm, but how often do we see them tossed overboard when the first wave hits?

When businesses put people in the center of redundancies everyone wins. When businesses put cost reduction, panic, and productivity in the center, they weaken their infrastructure, they make it harder to move forward.

We are heading into a period of change, reforming and reshaping. The best organizations will recognize that their issues are a small part of the greater global challenges we are all working through.

Their communications will acknowledge the external environment, but not blame it, it will be clear why they have to make changes, but it will feel fair.

Fairness is the aim.

Making redundancies is never going to feel great. But it is worse to hide, to avoid, to be a coward, to not be fair to your employees.

Let’s reduce the horror stories of how people get made redundant.

We know they have to happen but how they are handled is a leadership choice.

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