Company layoffs are a difficult but common process that internal communicators, business leaders, and people-focused teams must prepare for. In addition to announcing job cuts to those affected, communicating layoffs to remaining employees is essential for rebuilding morale and engagement when people feel disaffected by downsizing. This article has ten tips on supporting those who stay with the organization.
In 2023, company layoff announcements became unnervingly common in the global news cycle. In the technology industry alone, layoffs were over 50% higher than in 2022. This included mass workforce reductions at key players such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.
How organizations navigate and convey the challenge of employee layoffs has a significant impact on those leaving, those staying, and those making the announcements. Crafting a well-thought-out layoff communication strategy that considers the broader implications on your business and all stakeholders is essential to safeguarding your brand, reputation, and human capital.
The impact of layoffs on surviving employees
While the primary consequences affect those leaving the company, research consistently reveals a profound effect on those who remain.
The fallout may manifest practically, such as restructuring roles, the need for training or upskilling of remaining staff, or an increased workload. Emotional consequences include the loss of professional relationships, fear, insecurity, uncertainty about the future, or potential resentment or disengagement directed at management.
Research into the attitudes of over 4,000 remaining employees found that the level of “Layoff Survivor Stress” had a dramatic impact on productivity and performance:
- 74% of employees who kept their jobs said their productivity declined after company layoffs
- 69% of remaining employees said the quality of their company’s product or service declined following layoffs
- 87% of surviving workers admitted they were less likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work
- 61% of workers who stayed with the organization said they believed their company’s prospects were worse
HR teams are often the people who have to deal with the psychological and interpersonal effects of layoffs.
Beyond the written contract of employment between employees and employers, there is a psychological contract that exists. Although unspoken, this influential agreement between the two parties is what brings trust and a feeling of security to the relationship. If your employer has made certain roles redundant, it’s likely that the psychological contract between remaining employees and the business has been damaged. The “survivors” may have lost trust in the business and may worry that the same could happen to them. This can cause employees to withdraw from engagement, create a decrease in continuity and lower productivity levels.Source: HR News, Handling Redundancy in the workplace
Mishandling this sensitive process significantly increases the risks of negative reactions. If employees discover upcoming company layoffs through social media or co-workers, the resulting impact may be long-lasting.
However, if it’s planned well and handled sensitively, communicating layoffs to remaining employees can present an opportunity for fresh direction. It can also be a chance to demonstrate transparency and human-centered leadership. Empowering staff to understand why the process is happening – and what comes next – makes them more receptive to change.
How to handle layoff announcements as a company
Although individual management and personal conversations are more likely to involve HR teams, communicators and business leaders should also consider building a comprehensive business-wide change management and communications plan.
Tip one: Engage the comms team early
A layoff program is a sensitive organizational change—meaning it will probably be confidential and have few initial stakeholders.
Internal communications professionals are highly skilled at shaping (even difficult) messaging, however, so involving them early on supports the development of a comprehensive communications plan for remaining employees too. As with sensitive announcements for mergers and acquisitions, it will likely be necessary to create a steering group of comms, HR, marketing, and senior managers. Make sure you have all these voices in the mix if you want to create aligned messages that reach internal and external audiences at the right moments.
Tip two: Be clear about the “why” when communicating layoffs to remaining employees
There is unlikely to be only one reason why layoffs need to be made. Despite this, internal and external audiences will still expect a main change narrative. Your organization may be self-correcting after overhiring during a boom period. Or, slow sales in a territory may have led to a change in strategic direction.
A clear and consistent narrative reassures remaining workers about their roles and the future of the company. Articulating the “why” behind the decision to implement layoffs is crucial then, and leadership must play a central role in “owning it”. When thinking about talking points for the change, avoid turning the explanation into a justification or convoluted story with too much detail. Clarity and honesty matter, as does sticking to the agreed message.
Tip three: Identify everyone affected by job cuts and downsizing
While the focal point of your layoff program is those facing potential job loss, the impact ripples far beyond. Understand the wider network of people affected by change and offer what you can in terms of communication.
In addition to supporting those responsible for external or customer-facing communications, such as Customer Support, you can create separate messaging strands for teams impacted by the loss of co-workers.
Topics such as how individual roles may be impacted, or what the knock-on effect will be on a team’s workload, can be included. You can also outline what steps the company is taking to account for the workforce reduction (such as changes in targets or financial bonuses). Document these steps on intranet pages and in FAQ sections to keep them accurate and easily updated.
These actions show that people’s work and feelings are important enough to be documented even though the company does not have all the answers yet. This will also provide some reassurance and fill the vacuum that happens when people do not have enough information. Utilizing the range of personalized communication options now available will also help you segment employee audiences and deliver more targeted content manually and through AI-based intranet content automation.
Tip four: Anticipate a wide range of reactions
It’s important to recognize that people are individuals and will respond to news in unpredictable ways. Some will feel disengaged by the loss of co-workers. Other people may increase productivity as a means to achieve professional growth.
Two things to include in a layoff communications plan are how the organization will assess how people feel, and where to provide information. First, pulse surveys are useful for taking the temperature of different groups of people. Surveys allow you to ask short, simple questions that encourage an emotional response and can indicate where people may need better support or more transparent communication. Rather than asking simply how they feel about the news, you may ask whether they understand the rationale or have enough information about their futures.
Secondly, in your layoff communications plan, anticipate potential FAQs, and provide information about the next steps, consultation contacts, and additional support resources like your Employee Assistance Program (EAP). People may simply need to know where to go if they have questions, which a comprehensive intranet resource page can provide.
Tip five: Provide direction and support for people managers
A successful information cascade relies on two things: 1. Managers must have all the relevant information in time to distribute it, 2. The goodwill and support of managers should also be factored in—if middle managers feel out of the loop and disaffected too then they’re unlikely to make reliable ambassadors.
The Interact intranet platform is a permissions-driven system that surfaces content to individuals based on several configurable options, including whether they are a people manager or not. Through this, you can automate content so that it appears on their homepages, in blocking notifications, and many other areas—without the same content appearing to other employees. This is a fast and easy way to target communications to managers without having to rely on out-of-date email distribution lists or support from IT. Empowering line managers with information and support will assist them as they direct the concerns of their co-workers.
Tip six: Timing is everything
When distributing any kind of sensitive information, it’s essential to orchestrate internal and external communications.
When communicating layoffs to remaining employees, you also want to think about when the news will reach different groups and how it will affect them.
For example, if you are announcing layoffs that will potentially affect more than one territory, different time zones and shift patterns need to be considered.
If the comms and senior leadership teams are in New York City, 3 p.m. might seem a practical time to release the information to US-based employees. The announcement may take place effectively via email, on the intranet, and through manager cascades, but what about employees in different time zones who aren’t working at that time? If the organization has workers in Mumbai, India, for example, it would be around 2 a.m. there. The plan could be to announce the same information to those workers the following morning, but if US employees mention the news in Teams or Slack channels, or on external social media, the chance of bad news leaking increases. This can turn a challenging situation into an unmanageable one and lead to greater employee distrust and disengagement.
Tip seven: Channel choice is paramount
Your communication channels must be well planned if everyone is to receive information during a very narrow time window.
Frontline workers won’t have constant access to email; remote employees won’t see digital signage or be part of physical meetings.
It’s difficult then, but not insurmountable if you devise a multichannel communication strategy.
Even having a high-level matrix that shows which channels typically work best for different audience groups in your organization will give you a clearer sense of which to use.
Organizations may schedule layoffs comms through a mix of email, all-hands meetings, managerial one-to-ones, intranet pages (and notifications), Slack/Teams, mobile app alerts, and digital signage. The weighting and timing will all vary according to the specifics of the workforce. Generally, bad news is best delivered face to face (failing to do this has led to bad press and employee resentment in some companies), so it’s critical to consider who will announce news and communicate layoffs to the surviving team members. This may not be the same person as the one who speaks with employees affected by the workforce reduction. If it’s the Chief Operating Officer or Chief HR Officer who knows more about the future impacts on employees when the layoffs have happened, they may be best placed to answer questions and allay concerns.
Tip eight: Acknowledge the change before moving on
The unexpected loss of colleagues and friends can be a traumatic experience. And, while it’s natural to want to immediately focus on the positive, not allowing sufficient time or space for people to voice their issues can paper over the cracks and lead to engagement and employee retention challenges down the road.
When communicating layoffs with remaining employees, managers and leaders may want to show a human-centered approach by encouraging frank conversations in a climate where it doesn’t feel like people will be seen negatively for being anxious about the future. Motivational speeches about the future will inevitably happen if you want to get everyone moving forward as a team again, but allowing some time first is sensitive. There is no rule on how long is “right,” but pulse surveys and employee feedback may give a sense of when the initial emotions have waned.
Tip nine: Once acknowledged, move ahead with change
All remaining employees will need direction and motivation in addition to empathy. This is where the strategic vision can be voiced, and the change narrative may switch gears.
As part of your change communications strategy, this is also a phase where channel choice, timing, and audience segmentation all differ.
It may be that the Chief Financial Officer or CEO is more appropriate as a spokesperson for change, and there could be a greater focus on virtual meetings that gather everyone together.
It can also be a moment to reflect not just on the challenges of a smaller workforce but on the successes that are still being achieved. This can spread best practices and encourage collaboration between teams.
This kind of community and connection could be a welcome antidote if people feel enervated by the layoffs.
Life after layoffs
Moving on as an organization may take time, and communication around the process mustn’t cease the day staff leave. The employees still at the company won’t stop having concerns, so it’s essential to keep channels open and conduct regular feedback-gathering exercises.
Layoffs aren’t terminal for employee engagement. However, they need to be handled fairly and without misdirection or too much corporate jargon. Ultimately, the best thing the business can do is make a success of the current situation and treat remaining team members with respect and honesty.