We’ve analyzed recent one-to-many layoff communications to understand what companies can do to treat their employees with dignity during a layoff. The words you choose affect the recipient - both employees who are let go and those who stay.
On November 4th, Twitter laid off 50% of its staff, communicating the change via an impersonal email that prompted outrage and a potential lawsuit. Less than a week later, Meta announced a layoff of 13% of staff, or 11,000 people. Many people took to LinkedIn to share their frustration, offer support and help find new roles for those affected by the layoffs.
As this news unfolds, we've noticed a spike in the search term “layoffs” in our Open Library where we share communication guidance for managers communicating about layoffs and for managers communicating with remaining employees post-layoff. We know people are looking for support when it comes to how to communicate about this topic.
Layoffs can be a difficult and very personal part of the employee experience. Perfect employee communications regarding layoffs don’t exist - people are going to be angry, sad, upset, and confused even if you “check all the boxes” when it comes to communicating with empathy.
Companies shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good - it is possible to treat employees with dignity during a difficult time. And how companies communicate with their employees during difficult times makes as much, if not more, of an impression than how they communicate when things are going well.
Leading with empathy in your first layoff communication
We’ve noticed that most of the communications that have elicited a positive response in the public sphere (many from LinkedIn commentary from those outside of the company) have these six components:
- The letter comes from the Founder and/or CEO
- The Founder and/or CEO takes accountability and communicates with empathy
- Transparency about the economic (or other) reasons for the layoff are provided
- Details about severance packages is shared
- A time for in person discussion, including questions, is provided
- The Founder and/or CEO explains how they value those who are being laid off
What we did not observe in most of these communications, and what we’d recommend, is to explicitly offer support again in the near future. We believe that the promise of reconnection in a few months can make initial communications more effective.
There is support in the moment that people often cannot process or take advantage of - being laid off can be a shock. People need time to process and you should give them that time.
Offer grace for people to come back to the support resources you’ve offered a month or two later. In an ideal world you reach out to them again at that time to re-offer your support.
Analyzing five recent layoff communications
In the past few weeks, Opendoor, Lyft, Stripe, Twitter, and most recently, Meta, have all laid off employees.
Below is our comparison of each of the company's initial layoff communications. All communications, except for Twitter, come from a CEO or founder, state the percentage of employees affected, share the economic reasons for the layoffs, and details of a severance package.
The New York Times interviewed Sandra Sucher, a professor of management at Harvard University who has studied layoffs for more than a decade, who said Twitter’s layoffs were some of the most poorly handled.
The New York Times explains, “While the scale was not unprecedented, it was unusual to see layoffs done so quickly without a detailed explanation provided to workers about who was being laid off and why, she said. ‘This is a master class in how not to do it,’ Ms. Sucher said. ‘If you were going to rank order ways to upset people, telling them you’re going to do it in advance, without rationale, that is a particularly inhumane way to treat them.’”
What the comparison shows is the stark difference between treating people humanely and treating people with little regard. By covering the six components outlined above - from taking accountability to providing a time for discussion and expressing value for departing employees - it is possible to communicate about a layoff with empathy.