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.




Answering the Why

While consulting with a Fortune 500 consumer products company, my client and colleagues and I conducted internal and external research as the basis for an internal communication plan. As we talked with employees in focus groups, one theme kept reappearing. Employees didn’t just want to know where the company was headed and what decisions management was making. They also wanted to know why.

Answering the why is probably one of the most overlooked — and one of the most powerful — aspects of employee communication.

We might do a great job of communicating strategic messages on behalf of business leaders. These might include new products the company is launching or new markets it’s entering, investments the company is making and policies that are changing.

We might do an even better job of telling compelling stories about a team’s innovative approach to solving a problem, an employee’s passion for her job or the unique culture at one of the company’s plants.

These might make for interesting content. Employees might enjoy reading these stories on the intranet or hearing the CEO talk about them in town hall meetings. Leaders might believe they’re doing their part to create an environment of open, transparent communication. And they might be right.

But ask employees what’s missing from the information they receive about the business and often they’ll say they want to know the reasons behind company strategy, leaders’ decisions and changes in company policy and procedures.

Why is the why so important? Because it strengthens employee engagement. Sharing lots of information about the business is a good start toward engaging employees, but you can knock the ball out of the park when you start to talk about why. It helps employees put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make sense of the organization’s complexities. It helps them establish “line of sight” between what they do and what the business is trying to do. It helps them understand the reasons for business decisions, even if they don’t like those reasons.

Why is the company acquiring this seemingly unrelated business? Because it provides an entry point into an adjacent market.

Why does the company have such a stringent social media policy? Because it has a strategy when it comes to engaging with consumers and it wants to speak with one voice.

Why is the company laying off 100 people at this plant? Because bringing its cost structure in line with competitors is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Many business leaders forget that employees are investors, too. Even if they don’t invest their money in company stock, they do invest their time, energy and skills in the enterprise. Business leaders would never communicate a major business decision to investors without explaining why they made that decision — at least, if they want investors to continue investing. The same is true of employees. If you want them to continue investing their discretionary effort in your company, answering the why is essential.

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.

Employee Communication: Help for a Disengaged Workforce

While doing some research for an employee communications class I’m teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, I ran across some compelling information about the mindset of many people in today’s workforce.

I’ve already shared data from a 2010 Maritz Research poll that found only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. The same poll found only 14 percent believe their leaders are ethical and honest, and 12 percent believe their leaders listen to and care about employees.

According to the Gallup organization, 72 percent of employees are not engaged in their work. Basically, they’re going through the motions.

Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study in 2010 found that during the 2008-10 financial crisis, 72 percent of U.S. companies reduced their workforces. Seven out of 10 employees say this negatively affected how they feel about their work and employers.

Engagement matters, too. Three years earlier, Towers Perrin (the predecessor firm) found that return on assets in high-engagement companies was six times higher than low-engagement companies. High-engagement companies also had an average 19 percent increase in operating income and an average 28 percent growth in earnings per share year-over-year. In low-engagement companies, operating income dropped an average of 32 percent and EPS dropped an average of 11 percent year over year.

If you need more proof that engagement is important to a company’s success, here are all kinds of statistics on the subject.

Roger D’Aprix says employee engagement is “unleashing the energy and talent of people in the workplace.” Companies need engaged workforces to drive innovation, to ensure customer satisfaction, and because today’s society — not to mention today’s workers — expect it. Besides, considering the power of social media, would you rather have engaged or disengaged employees firing up Facebook and Twitter at night?

Employee communication plays a vital role in helping companies keep employees engaged and working for rather than against them. Consider some of the ways employee communication can help:

  • It helps keep everyone focused on the same things by explaining business goals
  • It helps build a sense of community among workers so that they feel they are a part of something important and good
  • It helps explain policies, procedures and culture — the way things are done around here
  • It helps demystify the complexities of the company
  • It helps explain to employees why they should want to be involved in the business and how they can be
  • It connects people with others in the organization who can help them accomplish things
  • It helps create a sense of trust between management and employees

Unfortunately in lean times like these, employee communication is often one of the first things to have its budget and resources reduced. Yet, these are the times when employee communication is needed most — to help engage a battered and disenfranchised workforce.

Remembering a Communicator’s Dream Boss

Today I learned of the death — seven months ago — of a woman who had a profound impact on my career in employee communications.

Dory Yochum was an extraordinary woman and a communicator’s dream boss. An odd experience 19 years ago cemented that impression of her in my mind.

First, some background on Dory: She was a single mother in her early 40s who had climbed the executive ladder in a variety of assignments at AT&T when she came to Richmond to become chief operating officer of the company’s printed circuit board factory here. (The plant no longer exists; it became part of Lucent Technologies, then was sold to a group of investors who finally closed it. A shopping center stands in its place today.)

She came to Richmond, she didn’t move here. Rather than uproot her kids from New Jersey, she spent three or four days a week here. In a story I wrote for the employee newsletter, she said, “My difficult schedule and time away are, of course, hard for me and my family. I deal with the practical side of this problem, the care of my children, by having a live-in housekeeper who is there to be sure they are safe and have adult supervision.” The children’s father also stayed with them while she was away. “The emotional side of being there is harder to handle,” she added, “and I try to manage this by spending individual time with each child to talk and relate. All of my time out of work is devoted to them.”

Her ascension into the executive levels of AT&T — a traditional company with mostly men at the helm in the early ’90s — drew the attention of Life magazine, which ran a pictorial essay on her in its August 1990 issue.

Dory believed in communication, and as a result, she gave this young communicator a lot of room to be creative and to try new things. She valued my perspective and my role, which greatly boosted my self-confidence at a crucial time in my career, just a few years after leaving news journalism for the corporate world.

Dory Yochum, 1991

In the summer of 1992, the plant was preparing for a downsizing — not an unusual occurrence in the world of manufacturing, and especially in the printed circuit board industry. A group of employees at the plant took sport in speculating who might be let go and created a “hit list” of likely layoff victims. When Dory heard about this, she hit the roof. She had worked hard to establish an open and supportive culture at the plant and she viewed this activity as antithetical to the company’s values.

So she fired off a memo to employees and asked me to review it and give her some feedback. The language she used was uncharacteristically strong and I told her it would likely cause a ruckus when employees read it. That’s exactly what she wanted, she said. And she sent it out.

Two sentences about the “hit list” stirred people up: “I consider this act of speculation to be as repulsive as watching buzzards attack a weakened prey. When we feed on the misfortune of others, we are no different than buzzards.”

The newsletter I edited had a regular letters-to-the-editor feature that was remarkably candid, thanks to the freedom Dory gave me in running it. When the memo went out, I received numerous angry letters from employees — some of which couldn’t be published due to the language, but some of which were quite well written. “We do not appreciate being called a bunch of buzzards,” said one. “In the future, Ms. Yochum should choose a more business-like manner in which to convey her message,” said another.

I asked Dory what I should do with the letters. “Print them,” she said. So I did. She opened the door to a debate that lasted another month or two. Dory met with employees and talked openly about the list and about her reaction to it, about whether or not she had gone too far in her memo, about the values that guided the company and about the culture she wanted for the plant community. She never apologized or backed down from the language she used in her memo, but she got the desired effect. People were talking about things that never were seriously discussed before: how we treat one another, how we work together even when we don’t agree.

It taught me a lot of lessons that I have carried with me through my communications career. Mostly I learned that there are leaders out there who understand the vital role communication can play in an organization and who are willing to do the hard work of fostering that communication.

A year before the “buzzard memo,” Dory said in an interview in my newsletter: “If you tell people you want to hear what they think, you have to be willing to listen to things you don’t like to hear. Then you must try to act to correct things that need to be better, and decide if there are things that people want that you just can’t change.”

It’s never easy being a leader, and especially one who is brave enough to promote a culture of open communication. Dory Yochum was the bravest leader I’ve ever known.

She died in December of breast cancer at the age of 62. Sadly, I had lost touch with her in recent years, but a few years ago I tracked her down and wrote her a note to let her know that working for her was one of the highlights of my career.