New perspectives about job cuts for turbulent times

By Michael Higashi
Getting laid off from your job is never pleasant—for anyone involved.

Whether you’re on the receiving end or have the unenviable task of delivering bad news to employees, the stress and emotions surrounding it can be overwhelming. Word of large-scale layoffs in the tech sector filled our social media and newsfeeds this week. We at Simpplr were struck by how different companies handled the communication around it and how much good communication can affect the experience of workforce reductions—not just for the affected employees, but for those who administer the layoff and, just as importantly, those workers who stay behind.

At Twitter, rumors of job losses swirled for some time. Without specifics, this can have unintended consequences. Among these is the departure of employees with “tribal knowledge” that an organization going through sweeping changes will undoubtedly need. Why do they leave? That can be summed up in one word. Uncertainty.

“You can’t fire me. I quit.”

Whenever there’s uncertainty, you have to step up your communications. If you don’t, employees will create their own reality. Whether you have changes internally or you’re responding to external factors, I guarantee you will have problems if employees don’t hear from you often. It’s essential to help employees filter the noise (and there’s a lot of it) to determine what’s relevant, what’s not, and how it relates to their job security.

Said differently, it’s human nature to fill knowledge gaps. If someone knows that layoffs are coming but needs more information about their situation, they’ll create their own reality. A source at Twitter speculated to CNBC precisely that: “Elon will own a company without employees.”

The layoffs reportedly came without thoughtful internal communication that might have turned down the volume of fear and stress for employees, kept them connected to and engaged with the company, and left them with a better feeling about their employer—whether or not the layoff impacted them. Equally worrisome, an article in TechCrunch referenced “a Bloomberg report cited sources saying that the company asked some folks to return as they were laid off by mistake.” It also noted it was calling some other employees back as they were critical for building features for the platform Musk envisions.

The curse of survivor guilt

If you’ve ever survived a layoff, you understand how it feels to wonder why your colleagues lost their jobs, and you didn’t. Employees who stay behind after a workforce reduction think about looking for another job even though theirs is safe—for now. And they almost certainly pay close attention to how the company treats impacted employees. Did they get a severance package? Were they treated with dignity and compassion? Did the company handle the communications well?  Survivor guilt is real, and the sudden doubt about the ability to trust their employer affects productivity, engagement, and the entire employee experience. Worse, the fear that sparked it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy when employees disengage.

So what can companies do to make a bad situation better?

A layoff tactic of a different Stripe

Internet financial infrastructure company Stripe was also among the many tech companies experiencing layoffs this week. For Stripe, communication and empathy were crucial. CEO Patrick Collison released an open letter to all employees that was echoed on the company website. In it, Collison announced the need to release 14% of the company’s workforce. The carefully-worded document thoroughly explained:

  • Who, what, when, where, why, and how this reduction was taking place and did so in plain, open language. 
  • What the company would do for affected employees regarding severance, benefits, career and immigration support, and staying connected with the company. A description of what the future for retained workers would look like.
  • Displayed compassion and empathy for all employees.
  • Took responsibility for the turn of events and offered a plan to prevent a similar situation in the future.

“While this is definitely not the separation we would have wanted or imagined when we were making hiring decisions, we want everyone that is leaving to know that we care about you as former colleagues and appreciate everything you’ve done for Stripe,” Collison wrote.

While #StripeLayoffs was a trending topic this week on both Twitter and LinkedIn, it’s for a different reason. People praised Stripe’s approach, with the phrase “Empathy matters” repeated in multiple posts. Moreover, most of the posts related to Stripe point out the stark differences between the two companies’ layoff events on the same day. “This is going to be taught in business schools,” one reader commented.

The case for connected communication

It’s hard not to notice the differences in approach. 

Internal communication that considers how the employees will respond is always a best practice, regardless of the subject. It’s crucial that employees feel supported by their organizations through any change, and HR and internal communications professionals should be included to ensure that connection and support infuse every message they craft.

In any situation where emotions run high, it’s imperative to bring in communications and HR professionals who are highly trained to ensure smooth changes and prevent errors. We hope that all companies, regardless of sector, keep this incident in mind if they’re in the unfortunate position of having to restructure the organization in the future, and make the process easier for everyone involved.

We know that many of you are right up front when massive changes like these take place.. We want you to know that you’re not alone. There’s a whole community of employee experience practitioners—in internal communications, IT, and HR—who support and appreciate you and the work you do every day—making work better.

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