Announcing layoffs? Ditch the buzzwords, and focus on people

There’s no easy or right method to break bad news, but you can soften the blow and convey the bad tidings without sounding like a corporate guillotine. Consider three key elements.

In the pantheon of communication, the dreaded layoff announcement might be the most difficult message to craft.

What’s the best way to let people know their jobs are being taken away?

ESPN is the latest corporation to wrangle with this delicate issue, as “the worldwide leader in sports” announced massive layoffs this week.

ESPN President John Skipper offered the following explanation to his employees:

ESPN has been actively engaged throughout its history in navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content. Today, we are again focused on a strategic vision that will propel our vast array of networks and services forward.

A necessary component of managing change involves constantly evaluating how we best utilize all of our resources, and that sometimes involves difficult decisions. Our content strategy—primarily illustrated in recent months by melding distinct, personality-driven SportsCenter TV editions and digital-only efforts with our biggest sub-brand—still needs to go further, faster… and as always, must be efficient and nimble. Dynamic change demands an increased focus on versatility and value, and as a result, we have been engaged in the challenging process of determining the talent—anchors, analysts, reporters, writers and those who handle play-by-play—necessary to meet those demands. We will implement changes in our talent lineup this week. A limited number of other positions will also be affected and a handful of new jobs will be posted to fill various needs…

To explain the cuts, ESPN also offered a glimpse of its “content evolution strategy” moving forward.

Though far from the worst corporate layoff memo of all time, this grim episode offers a chance to reflect on how to communicate job cuts compassionately. Clearly there is no magic button for sharing such life-altering news, but humane, tone-appropriate announcements share the following ingredients:

1. Keep it short and swift. Companies understandably include details about the firings to justify their actions and reassure stockholders, but making a downsizing memo about the company rather than the human beings affected is a bad choice. It’s akin to telling someone your relationship is over, and then launching into a lengthy, meticulous explanation of what went wrong and what your plans are.

PR veteran Jeremy Pepper advises the best tack for layoff announcements is to be direct and transparent. “If the employees know the situation and have a severance package, it’s a bit easier. There really isn’t a good way to do layoffs, but it’s like a Band-aid.” That is to say, pull it off quickly.

2. Use straight talk instead of buzzwords. Flackable CEO Brian Hart thinks ESPN missed the messaging ball this week, saying, “The layoff announcement was generic and failed to reassure viewers that they’re committed to improving their business. Sports fans deserve better.”

Contrast ESPN’s statements with how Twitter’s Jack Dorsey broke the bad news to employees in 2015: “We are moving forward with a restructuring of our workforce so we can put our company on a stronger path to grow. Emails like this are usually riddled with corporate speak so I’m going to give it to you straight.”

That goes directly to the point. It’s still painful, obviously, as 336 people ended up getting canned, but at least he spared his team from wading through buzzword bloviation to get the gist.

3. Put people first. Layoff announcements are a Golden Rule issue: Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. If you were the one getting the ax, how would you like to find out about it?

The living, breathing human beings with kids, bills and medical issues—whose lives are about to be thrown into turmoil—should be the first consideration when crafting messages of this nature. That might look different depending on company size, culture or location, but the principles of compassion and decency remain the same.

In terms of PR, putting people first is always a safe play and, of course, the right thing to do. Your layoff announcement can certainly address the need for “dynamic change,” or outline your company’s “content evolution strategy,” but be mindful of the human element.

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