3 ways to prevent ex-employees from seizing control of your layoff narrative

How to respond when individual workers begin to become the story in the wake of layoffs.

Keeping control of layoff comms

The most challenging part of layoff communications, beyond the human and emotional toll, is controlling the narrative: telling the right story to employees who are leaving, to those who are staying, to shareholders and investors, to the general public.

But increasingly, other parties – often those who have been laid off – are sharing their side of the story.  When unaddressed, these incidents can cause serious harm to employee morale, employer branding and general market sentiment.

Whether former employees are leaking layoff communications to the press, recording their own terminations, sharing stories on social media or banding together and responding as a union, these actions can create new wrinkles. Navigating these situations requires a strong partnership between both internal and external communicators before, during and after layoffs to mitigate damage and respond with empathy.

Here are some common scenarios that can occur when individual workers begin to become the story in the wake of a layoff, plus how to respond – or even prevent these scenarios entirely.


Leaks are the most familiar of these challenges to many communicators. It’s as simple as a current or former employee hitting “forward” on an email message, screenshotting an intranet post, or recording a town hall and passing it along to a sympathetic reporter.

In a matter of moments, every word you so carefully workshopped with leadership can now be dissected or taken out of context.

But in many cases, this isn’t a disaster. Journalists who get their hands on these memos often use them to inform their reporting on the layoffs, using simple excerpts to illustrate the whys and hows for their audiences, as in this Wall Street Journal piece on layoffs.

A well-crafted layoff memo or email is worth “leaking” yourself. Whether that means proactively sending it to a trusted reporter or posting it on your website, as eBay did here, these communications can help tell your story clearly. If it helps your employees understand better, chances are it’ll help all audiences do so.

The issue arises when the leaked communications aren’t put together well. When they don’t respect the inherent humanity of the people losing their jobs. When they make the CEO holding the ax seem like a victim.

We’ve seen this happen time and time again. In 2023, the CEO of PagerDuty quoted Martin Luther King on the measure of a good leader in the same email where she announced a 7% reduction in force. In 2021, a video of the CEO of Better.com laying off 900 employees via Zoom and once again making himself the main character (“This is the second time in my career I’m doing this and I do not want to do this. The last time I did it, I cried,” CEO Vishal Garg said on the call).

The bottom line: Craft all layoff communications, including speeches, with the expectation that they will leak. If you wouldn’t feel good about the announcement memo appearing on the front page of the New York Times, don’t send it to your staff. Consider crafting the documents in such a way that they can serve external audiences as well as internal stakeholders. Bring together your internal and external teams to explain the situation with compassion – but also a keen understanding of the business and its implications. If you share your communications first, you’ll have the opportunity to frame them in the best possible light.

People sharing personal stories 

A Wayfair employee was about to head to a chemotherapy appointment to treat her stage 4 metastatic breast cancer when she got word that she had been laid off. She was on medical leave at the time but was terminated all the same, as she detailed in a LinkedIn post.

(Yes, it is legal to lay someone off while on leave, whether medical or parental, as long as the leave is not the reason they are laid off.)

That would have been a personal tragedy, but a series of communications missteps compounded the fear, stress and anxiety that a person undergoing chemotherapy had to endure, including long pauses before additional information was shared on the severance package and other details.

“To say this raised my anxiety would be an understatement,” Andrena M. wrote on LinkedIn. “I kid you not my blood pressure which is always normal, despite stage 4, was the highest I can recall and my resting heart rate the highest on record.”

Wayfair, of course, had its share of bad press for how it handled employee communications in general and layoffs in particular, as our colleague Sean Devlin explains on Ragan.com.

The bottom line: There is no way to make a layoff stress-free, but this level of waiting and anxiety is unnecessary. Establish the cadence of how information will be rolled out to terminated employees so that it comes quickly, answering questions proactively without leaving them wondering. Mistakes can happen and delays might occur, but do your best to get information into their hands as quickly as you can so they can go about their lives and plan their next moves.

And – this is a larger conversation to be had in conjunction with HR – consider whether it’s possible to let people finish their leave before they are officially terminated.

As NPR notes, “Still, some employers do wait until the end of someone’s leave to implement a layoff. In some cases, they want to give that person extra time to get back on their feet. Other times, it’s to avoid any chance of a costly legal fight.”

For more information on how to access the full story and become a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council, reach out here.

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


One Response to “3 ways to prevent ex-employees from seizing control of your layoff narrative”

    Rick Chambers, APR says:

    Years ago, I was the media spokesperson when my company closed a site in a small community. A local reporter was going around trying to get employees to speak, so I went to the site leader and asked for four employees willing to share their perspectives honestly and thoughtfully. I met with them and said I wasn’t giving them talking points. I told them what I’d been saying, and then I added, “You don’t need to remember any of that. Instead, I invite you to say what’s on your heart. Share what you know and what you feel, as much as you feel comfortable.” Then I invited the reporter to come in to interview them while I gave them some space (though obviously still in the room). What ensued was an accurate, frank and level-headed interview. The employees openly shared their fears, disappointment and uncertainties, occasionally with tears. At the same time, they said they understood the business reasons and were grateful for the way the company was supporting them (letting them know early on, offering severance, job search, etc.). The reporter was surprised when they assured him I hadn’t told them what to say. The result was an outstanding page-1 story that helped the community understand and come to grips with the decision, showed how the company was helping those affected, and portrayed the company as both caring and transparent. Risky? Yes, hugely so. But it was the right thing to do, and companies should do it more. Layoffs and site closures aren’t just a bottom-line decision; they impact people’s lives and whole communities. If companies are going to make choices like this, they first need to have compassion for those affected — not just in word, but also in supportive deed — and second, they must have the courage to acknowledge the negatives in a meaningful, authentic way. When compassion, transparency and authenticity are the guiding principles, leaks become far less worrisome.

PR Daily News Feed

Sign up to receive the latest articles from PR Daily directly in your inbox.