Large-scale layoffs, or reductions in force (RIFs), are, regrettably, a fact of life in business. More than 322,000 were announced by U.S.-based companies in 2021 and another 133,000 in the first half of 2022, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
I’ve witnessed RIFs many times in my 15-plus years in people management, and the area where I most often see efforts fall short is communications. Too often, communications about an RIF:
- Don’t start early enough or continue long enough
- Are inconsistent in messaging
- Don’t reach all necessary audiences
- Lack openness and honesty
- Fail to strike the right tone
The first priority in an RIF should be treating impacted employees with respect and compassion. Executives also must be concerned about the impact on the remaining employees and on the company’s reputation. This is where communication plays a vital role.
Here are key considerations in planning and implementing effective communications for an RIF.
Develop a communications plan.
As soon as the management team decides an RIF is necessary, HR and the head of corporate communications should start collaborating on the communications plan. The essential elements are:
This should be a clear, honest, and compelling explanation of why the RIF is necessary, including discussion of other options previously taken or rejected (e.g., furloughs, pay cuts, unpaid vacations, divestitures). Companies with a history and culture of openness about the state of the business will have an easier time getting employees to understand why action steps are required. In my experience, when employees are surprised by the news, they’re less receptive to the explanation.
This should include a succinct summary of what people need to know and understand about the action being taken, with special emphasis on what’s being done for impacted employees. There also should be a forward-looking vision of how this action positively positions the company going forward, as well as a high-level outline of any planned changes in strategy or organizational structure. It’s critical that the C-suite is in complete agreement with all the key messages so that the senior management team can communicate them authentically.
Of course employees are a significant constituency, but you’ll need to identify additional individuals or groups you want to inform, such as: business partners; investors; local, national, and trade media; market and financial analysts; and local officials. Keep audience-specific messaging to a minimum, to foster consistency. You should assume that anything that is written or said inside the company will be made public at some point and in some form, so plan ahead and anticipate both questions and answers. It’s often helpful to create an FAQ that can be disseminated to leadership, frontline managers, and anyone else who may get these questions.
It’s critical to plan the details of the communications rollout, starting from before the impacted employees are informed and including any actions that follow those meetings. Most often these include: notification to the entire company before the notifications begin, an all-hands meeting for remaining employees; company-wide emails; distribution of separation paperwork; website announcements; and social media postings.
You may also want to include other actions in your plan — such as updates to internal documentation (org charts, for example), reductions or eliminations in facilities, and notifications to business partners — depending on circumstances, the structure of your company, the number of employees and worksites, and other factors.
Prepare your frontline managers, senior leadership, and IT department.
As important as it is to get the strategy and messaging right, it’s equally important to prepare those who will deliver the messages.
Most important are the frontline managers who will have to deliver the bad news to impacted employees. Most managers will need training on delivering news like this, as they’ve likely never had to perform this role before.
In addition to training and coaching, you can provide them with tools, such as a suggested script to be used in meetings with impacted employees. (Of course, training should include advice on how to use the script in a way that conveys authentic sincerity and sympathy and isn’t rote recitation.) The script should include the rationale and key talking points from the communications plan. It’s essential that whatever is said about the RIF in the notification meetings is entirely consistent with statements made in all other venues and formats. An FAQ with suggested answers is also a valuable tool.
While mid-level managers may be the most heavily involved in this process, senior leadership must be visible. The CEO should be the lead spokesperson for the announcement. On the day of the announcement, all members of the executive team should be on site. They, too, should be provided in advance with the key talking points and FAQs. Remember that even leaders of departments without any layoffs are still going to receive questions from members of their teams, so they need to be prepared as well.
One aspect that’s often overlooked is making sure that the leader of your IT department is briefed far enough in advance so that access to IT services can be turned off simultaneously with notification meetings and applied consistently across all impacted employees. IT cutoff often is seen by employees as a cold, stark reminder that they’ve been terminated, but it must be applied equally to everyone affected.
Coordinate the sequence of events on the day of the RIF.
The sequence of events on the day of the announcement must be carefully coordinated:
Send a notice out to all employees informing them that layoffs will be announced that day and advising them to watch for calendar invites, which should be sent out in as short a timeframe as possible.
Send meeting invitations to impacted employees. The notification meetings should be private meetings between the employee and their direct manager (or one level up if the direct manager is impacted) and an HR representative. These meetings should last no more than 20 minutes. If the RIF is a surprise, sometimes the person impacted is processing the news and doesn’t take in the important information about their pay and benefits, so the HR representative should be available for follow-up questions.
Immediately following the notification meetings, hold an all-hands meeting (in person, by video, or both). The CEO should be the main presenter. This meeting should:
- Recap the rationale for the action
- Identify the people and departments impacted
- Reinforce that no further layoffs are planned
- Summarize the changes to be made in the company’s organization, strategy, and focus
- Include an open Q&A
Immediately after the all-hands meeting, give news of the RIF to any external audiences who were identified in development of the communications plan. This may include a news release and calls to business partners, investors, analysts, or elected officials.
The requirement for effective communications does not end on the announcement date. In the subsequent days, the company should hold either another all-hands meeting or departmental meetings to describe the company’s strategy going forward, what changes are being made, how individuals’ roles may change, and other important topics. An open Q&A is key here, too, to ensure maximum transparency and open communications in the days following the announcement. Some people will ask the questions that are on other people’s minds, so group meetings are helpful. The goal is to foster employee confidence in the future of the company and emphasize the importance of their contributions to it.
Make special accommodations for hybrid workplaces.
As if RIFs aren’t challenging enough, the emergence of hybrid work environments adds complications. Questions that may arise include:
- Do we know where everyone will be?
- How do we have an all-hands meeting?
- How do we prevent layoff packets and final checks from reaching employees before they’re notified?
- Can we effectively communicate compassion and sincerity remotely, and engage with employees to understand their emotions and concerns?
Here are action steps that HR managers can take in a hybrid work situation:
- Ensure that managers of impacted employees know in advance where everyone will be on announcement day.
- Based on the knowledge of where everyone will be, coordinate the delivery of layoff packets and checks so they arrive after notification. (Be mindful of the states that require final pay be given on the final day of employment, and plan to pay through the date the check will be received.)
- If an employee will not be on site, the notification meeting should be conducted by video conference, not telephone.
- Ensure that video arrangements for all-hands meetings can accommodate all attendees, will allow Q&A, and will be recorded for later availability.
- Encourage departmental or team managers to make an extra effort to engage retained employees in dialog to understand and address their concerns.
. . .
An RIF is one of the most difficult and painful actions a business leader can take, and how it’s handled can have a lasting impact on the company’s reputation as well as the well-being of both dismissed and retained employees. It’s encouraging to see some companies putting transparent, authentic, and accountable communication into action. For example, Stripe’s recent RIF communication balanced compassion for impacted employees with a positive outlook for those who remain by outlining a fixed timeline to close the current chapter and one to “reset, recalibrate, and move forward.” It’s also a great example of one open message shared across multiple audiences.
If an RIF is not supported by effective communications like this, there’s a higher risk of negative impacts — both for the company’s remaining employees and for its long-term reputation.