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Communicating About Layoffs In A Post-Pandemic World—What’s Different?

|August 12, 2022
Communicating About Layoffs In A Post-Pandemic World—What’s Different?
Written by
Director, Corporate Advisory Group

Samantha Strader

Director, Corporate Advisory Group

Layoffs. It’s a word no one likes to hear. But with the current economic uncertainties, continued supply chain challenges, higher interest rates, and profit pressures, we’re likely to start seeing company reorganizations and workforce reductions. In fact, we’re already seeing it in some industries: as of July, more than 32,000 workers in the U.S. tech sector have been laid off this year, according to Crunchbase News.

All of this means it’s time for companies to dust off their reduction-in-force (RIF) communication playbooks. And the reality is, those playbooks may be a little out of date. For one, there haven’t been many layoffs since pre-COVID (yes, there were furloughs at the start of COVID, but many were cushioned by the extension of unemployment benefits. Plus, everyone was in the same pandemic-hit boat). We’re also living in a very different world of work now: with many employees working hybrid schedules, or even fully remote, the connection between employees, managers and the organization may be different than it was before.

All of this can have a big impact on the way you communicate about layoffs. While most of the basic best practices will still apply, some may need to be altered to fit this new environment.

A few elements to consider

  • A different culture.You probably had a pretty established company culture prior to 2020—but how did that culture fare through the last two years? With employees going virtual and now hybrid (not to mention other company-specific factors), your culture may have changed. Managers may not feel as in-touch with their employees, and employees may not feel as connected to their managers—or the company. All of this will make it harder to anticipate how a reduction in force will be received. Layoffs now, after all that employees have been through, may impact their confidence in the company and cause those staying to question whether leadership really has their best interests at heart.

  • Shifting leadership expectations. According to recent research by Padilla, certain leadership qualities are more important to employees now than they were two years ago. Our research shows that nearly 65% of employees feel that empathy and transparency have risen in importance, and 56% feel that authenticity has, too. How will you adjust your strategy and communications to align with these shifting expectations? Additionally, different employees—especially those of different generations—may have contradicting feelings on your communication approach. While foreshadowing the change can increase transparency, which will be appreciated by some, it could just cause anxiety for others.

  • More rumor mills. Talk of potential layoffs always makes its way into the rumor mill, but you’ve likely created even more rumor mills since the pandemic began. We all set up new digital channels to help us communicate and collaborate better while working virtually—but now each of those channels has the potential to act as another digital water cooler for rumors and anxiety. Plus, many employees are now even more comfortable publicly speaking their minds than they were a few years ago.

  • Low unemployment. We’ve all heard the term “The Great Resignation” and how it’s a job-seeker’s market right now—and layoffs will seem completely counterintuitive to this. It goes back to employee confidence in the organization: at a time when companies are struggling to hire good people, why would you lay people off, unless you’ve made poor financial decisions or are struggling as an organization?

Add all of this up, and you can see why your old RIF communications playbook might need some updating. So, as you’re adjusting your communication strategy, here are some suggestions:

  • Decide whether to foreshadow. This goes back to your company culture—if yours came out of the pandemic stronger and your employees are receptive to change, foreshadowing can help lessen the blow and meet the desire for higher transparency. If not, foreshadowing could just serve to increase the anxiety and frustration.

  • Make layoffs part of the long-term vision. After the chaos of the last two years, these layoffs can’t just be about cost-cutting and profitability, which sounds short sighted and insufficient. There needs to be a bigger narrative—one that explains why this is a strategic business decision and includes a “so we can…” component, as in: “We need to reduce our costs and return to profitability so we can invest in XYZ to meet needs A, B and C of our customers and employees.” These layoffs need to be seen as required near-term changes to help achieve a long-term plan.

  • Be more empathetic in every communication. Layoffs will be particularly tough now after everything employees have been through, and especially without the pandemic’s extended unemployment benefits. Be authentic in your acknowledgment of how tough this situation is, and show that you truly care and understand how they’re feeling—both those who are leaving and those who are staying. The latter will need to understand why and how this decision was made, and feel confident in the future of the company.

  • Listen to employees. Make sure you’re keeping an ear tuned to those new digital watercoolers, in addition to usual office chatter, so you can address employee fears and concerns before they become bigger issues. As mentioned, it’s a job seeker’s market right now, and the last thing you want is to lose more employees—by their own choice.

This article was initially published by our sister company Padilla on The Buzz Bin

——— Samantha Strader is Director, Corporate Advisory Group at Padilla, sister company of NATIONAL Public Relations