Layoffs are often the worst tasks for business leaders. When a business does badly or needs to trim its operations, there is sometimes no better way out to cut costs then to trim the number of employees. There are also situations where businesses are simply not well run, and they over-recruited beyond the number of employees they need, in a “defensive recruitment” mode, which especially in a downturn, will invariably lay off employees.
And layoffs can be communicated in many ways. The worst examples are aplenty, but the question is how do we communicate a harsh reality to employees in the most humane way?
The changing employee landscape
In very classical organizations, the role of human resource (HR) managers were to communicate all things internal to employees. That may not have been the best foot forward, but in those good old days, employees merely accepted whatever an organization said, and meekly kept their silence as long as they were compensated for their labor. This is akin to the old days in the flight deck where the captain was “king”, and copilots, engineers and cabin crew would have to fold in line.
However, in the 21st century, captains (or pilot in charge) work collaboratively and collegially with their co-pilots and cabin crew. Sure, the responsibility of a captain remains the same, but the manner of communication and engagement with fellow colleagues in the flight deck are different.
Likewise, employees are often self-empowered, and with the advent of social media and smartphones, communication can no longer be one-sided or instructive. Communication today between employers and employees has to be collegial, collaborative, engaging, and mutually beneficial.
Communications as a separate function
The HR function has 2 parts, the traditional human resource management (HRM) part handling compensation, benefits, and recruitment, and another human resource development (HRD) part which is sometimes filled by another executive under “training and development”. Depending on the type of organization, the HRD role can impart “soft skills”, such as selling, presentation, leadership knowledge, or “hard skills”, such as engineering and technical knowledge.
HR managers do recognize that internal communication is extremely important, and the general consensus is that they too agree this function should not be part of the HR management function, but under a separate communications role. This is where the communications department of a business comes in, and sometimes, where an external PR agency or practitioner leans in to fill the void.
The communications executive, as a separate function, should not report to the HR department, but to the C-suite, just as the HR lead does. This clarifies the perspective that the communications function is as important as HR, finance, engineering, and so on.
Making internal communications work
So, how should internal communications be? We recommend 4 attributes.
We have seen too many burnouts in various industries, where businesses took shortcuts, living off monies of investors, putting up glamorous fronts and incurring exorbitant expenses, without any sustainable program for revenue in place. Internal communications must first align with central business objectives. The 2 fundamental reasons for a business to exist, is to make money, and to survive for the long haul. All other reasons will have to be supplemental to these 2 tenets. For a business to survive for the long haul, it must obey all the laws of the land. Therefore, the best way forward for a business, is to respect and honor the laws, and the constituents of stakeholders, whether they are external, or internal. Then as a business grows and its brand and reputation thickens with recognition, revenue and profits will naturally follow.
While a business has a primary reason to survive and thrive, it needs to gain the trust of internal and external stakeholders. Benefitting the greater community and communicating these initiatives factually can become catalysts for other businesses and individuals to follow suit. So, while a business aims to make money, consistent beneficial programs to the greater community can help build up a brand, to attract more people to join this business as employees, and also endear existing employees to the business.
The modern generation of employees are much more vocal, and have access to social media platforms to share their feelings and experiences. This means that while businesses may intend to reprimand or punish errant employees for wrong-doing, it is still important to ensure internal and external communications are congruent with verifiable reality and facts to prevent backlash at the organization. Further, it is important to regularly applaud employees who did well and do good, to appreciate good results and also recognize valiant attempts (even if they were failures), so that these employees can become “stars” to inspire others in the organization to be and do the same.
Every textbook in the market is talking about authenticity in communication. This holds true in public relations, and also in internal communication. It is easy to keep up the truth, because no matter how many times you say it, you will be confidently saying the truth without the need for rehearsals or preparation. However, lies are hard to keep up, as they tend to need lies and more lies to patch up all the easily uncovered gaps. For bad times such as layoffs, it is exceptionally important to be both altruistic (empathetic) and authentic (being real and vulnerable).
The internal communications function is a beacon of maturity and growth for a business. So as your business grows and matures, it is critical to ensure you build up internal and outsourced capabilities of internal communications so that your HR department can function well without apprehension or pressure, while you are also able to communicate effectively with all your employees.
Seamus Phan has 35 years of professional experience. Polymath Problem-Solver & Strategist – Leadership, Cybersecurity, Branding, Crisis, Scientist, Artist, Author, Aviation, and Theologian. Some articles are reproduced at McGallen & Bolden, where he is CTO and Head of Content. Connect on LinkedIn. ©1984-2023.