Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.




7 Tips for Communicating a Layoff

The U.S. economy is allegedly improving, but try telling that to 4,500 employees who are losing their jobs at Citigroup or 30,000 who will leave Bank of America in the next few years.

The fact is that layoffs happen even in a good economy. The macroeconomic environment isn’t the only thing that affects whether or not companies shed people. Industry trends, competition, cost management and many other factors are also at work.

Layoffs are awful for everyone involved. Of course, the people who lose their jobs are hit the hardest, but to be fair, those who are left behind and even company leaders — the good ones anyway — suffer when companies cut jobs.

Communication can help ease the pain. Let me say up front that there is nothing that can make people feel good about layoffs (unless you are a shareholder who has no compassion or regard for others). But communicating layoffs the right way can help ease the pain and facilitate recovery.

Here are some things to keep in mind when communicating layoffs:

  • Develop a plan. It could be that you are given little to no advance notice that a layoff announcement is coming. (Best practice would be to have a communicator at the table from the start.) Regardless of when you are brought into the discussion, the first thing to do is to develop a communication plan — for how you will announce the layoff as well as the days and weeks following. Keep employees informed of the process every step of the way. Prepare managers for their difficult tasks ahead. Think ahead to the days and weeks following the layoff.
  • Be timely. Companies are obligated to let certain groups of people know about their layoff plans first, but employees should find out simultaneously or as soon after as possible. It should go without saying, but don’t let the grapevine or, for God’s sake, the news media deliver the news to employees.
  • Put leaders out front. This is the time for strong, visible leadership. Nobody wishes to deliver bad news, but employees will respect leaders who communicate openly, frequently and who don’t hide in their offices.
  • Be honest and candid. Employees can see right through BS. Tell employees the business reasons for the layoff in a straightforward way. If it’s because the company has failed to manage its cost structure effectively, acknowledge it. If it’s because the competition is eating your lunch, say so.
  • Be respectful. Treat employees like adults. Recognize that this news is devastating to employees, regardless of whether they will lose their jobs or not. When you make the announcement, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to notify employees of their individual status, so be respectful of the anxiety this news will cause among all employees. When individuals are notified, treat them with dignity. Never give them a box for them to fill their belongings and have security officers escort them to the door. Believe me, this has happened.
  • Show an appropriate degree of empathy. If your management has never treated employees with respect and empathy before, this is not the time to start — it will only come across as fake. But if your management has wisely made deposits into its goodwill account over the years, acknowledge how difficult the layoff is for everyone and how hard it is to have to make such an awful  business decision.
  • Remember the survivors. You should develop a communication plan not only for informing employees of the layoff, but also for the days and weeks after separations occur. The survivors are likely to be sad to lose co-workers, scared of what the future holds, and even a bit angry at business leaders. Think about communication activities and content that could help ease the transition back into business as usual.

Do you have tips of your own? Comment below.