Messaging Layoffs

Since I’ve been discussing messaging and talking points over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share this chilling story from Marketplace Radio on the jargonizing of layoff language.

A reporter from Financial Times noted that Nokia, when putting 17,000 employees out of work, described the act as “managing them for value.”

Companies have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, delayered, OPEX’ed, and RIF’ed their way through the Great Recession as lawyers, HR and finance tried to spin the news for Wall Street. If communications professionals were involved in the creation of this sort of messaging, then, quite frankly, shame on them. Doublespeak always backfires.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of working for companies faced with the difficult position of laying off employees, yet they had the compassion to insist that the process – and the communications around it – be done with integrity and respect.

All told, I’ve communicated layoffs that affected the lives of more than 25,000 individuals and their families and communities. And I’ve had the job of rallying internal audiences and keeping them focused and productive once layoffs and facility closures were through.

The reason telling Wall Street that managing 17,000 people “for value” always backfires is that Wall Street isn’t the only audience. There are employees. They’re listening and, trust me, they are not impressed with “Up in the Air” glibness. That goes double if two separate departments are handling messaging, one spouting “managing for value” externally, and the other trying to ward off plummeting internal morale with compassion or simply by providing economic facts around a struggling business.

One of the most basic tenets of corporate communications is synching internal and external messages. No amount of compassion and respect in internal communications can combat hearing “managing for value” on TV.

If you do this right, you are hyper-aware throughout that layoffs are about human beings, not numbers. Compassion rules your heart and nothing blurs your vision of how this is done with integrity. Your credibility and your company’s rests on messaging – external and internal – that is respectful and, above all, consistent.

Clearing the Air around Firing

A side note about the misuse of language regarding layoffs: Isn’t it time we all – corporate communicators, reporters and HR people – stopped confusing layoffs with firing?

Firing is something that happens for cause, because an individual violates a policy, rules of conduct, or simply doesn’t perform appropriately in a job. Layoffs typically involve groups of employees and, while one or two might have made the list for cause, no one (especially not HR) will ever admit that.

Confusing or, worse, conflating “layoff” with “firing” does an enormous disservice to those who’ve just lost their jobs (and don’t particularly want to hear on the news that they’ve been “fired”) and the job-seekers who are trying to position themselves for new work (and don’t need the added pressure of having to answer an interview question like, “Why were you fired from your last job?” when in actuality they were laid off).

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