It’s fair to say that the economic impact of COVID-19 is hitting nearly every organization, and unfortunately many are facing difficult decisions regarding their employees. Regardless of reason, letting people go is gut-wrenching for both employees who are laid off and colleagues who remain. It’s never easy; this is a time when your company’s character should drive decision making and communications strategy. Here’s some guidance from those who have been there before.  

1. Decide First, Communicate Second – Make the fundamental business decisions first. How deep do you need to cut? What criteria will you use? To what extent will you access government aid programs? What will you offer in terms of severance and retention of benefits? How will responsibilities be re-assigned? These and other foundational questions drive the content, tone and timing of any communications. 

2. Plan, Plan, Plan – It’s surprising how many times companies jump right to creating content without a proper plan. Clearly outline objectives, audiences, key points, communications channels and timeline before jumping into crafting “the message.”  This will help assure that communications are on-target and keep those involved focused. Make sure to plan for anticipated questions and prepare answers that are honest and empathetic.

3. Sequence Matters – Notify those employees impacted by the layoffs first, followed by all employees, and THEN those outside of your organization on an as-needed basis. If you are part of a large organization or it’s a large-scale layoff, it’s a good idea to have a standby statement ready for media. If you’re a publicly traded company, consult with your investor relations team as timing and sequencing will be impacted by regulatory considerations and materiality.

4. Be Courageous, Transparent and Human– Demonstrate honesty and candor about the reason for layoffs, the number of people impacted and what this means for the future of the company (to the extent you can). Trying to “keep it quiet” often does more harm than good, creating an atmosphere of distrust between employees and leadership. Most importantly, remember that you are talking about colleagues and friends. Acknowledge that this is a difficult situation for everyone, and not a decision that was made lightly.  

5. Be Consistent – Employees, customers, media, investors, community members and industry influencers talk to each other. Don’t hurt your credibility by giving each of them a different story. It’s okay to vary the level of detail, but not the underlying reasons or implications. Make sure company leaders and managers have talking points and the information they need to answer questions accurately.

6. Consider the Employees Who Remain – Reinforce your support, appreciation and gratitude for those who are staying with the company. People process information and respond in different ways, and this is an emotional time for everyone.  Give people space to digest the news and to come to terms with what it means. Additionally, provide them with a place to go with questions (and to leverage any employee assistance programs). Accept that you may lose some near-term productivity, but that if you plan accordingly and communicate effectively, you can minimize further stress on the organization. 

If you’re faced with difficult employee decisions related to COVID-19, Padilla’s Employee Engagement and Coronavirus Response Teams are here to help.