Opinion: Lamenting the lack of leadership in layoffs

Reading Time: 3 minutes

WE all know healthy communication is the bedrock of leading well and fostering trust, writes Courtney Malengo. Yet for all that knowledge, there is ample opportunity to improve. While many of us lament about leaders who behave badly, we are also quick to praise those same leaders for their genius and results. We all know that person who is amazing at what they do and consistently outperforms their peers. Translation, they get stuff done. There’s often one problem — their behavior. 

Sometimes, real-life lessons in what not to do can leave lasting impressions. During Covid-19, particularly as remote working was commonplace, we all know of CEOs who announced layoffs or redundancies of employees over Zoom, sparking a debate about modern-day pink slips. 

Many companies have experienced layoffs, especially during the pandemic. While layoffs are never ideal, this wasn’t the crux of this problem. The problem was how the layoffs were handled and communicated. Unfortunately, too often the verbal and non-verbal language chosen communicated a focus on CEOs’ own personal wellbeing, rather than the wellbeing of the company’s employees losing their jobs. 

In some organizations, communication failures led to several top executives resigning, including communications professionals. Where CEOs were not prepared to handle these situations, whether they were counselled differently and ignored it, or no one wanted to challenge them, we may never know. What we do know is this is not the way to earn trust, loyalty, or increased performance from your team. 

Layoffs can happen in the best of companies and startups are especially vulnerable. Leadership should not remain indifferent to adversely impacting the lives of its employees and their families (who toiled alongside management to make their mission a reality). Video conferencing doesn’t give us an excuse to issue layoffs and redundancies to people without consequences. 

If we examine how not to communicate layoffs to team members, here is how these situations could be managed differently. 

Use empathy and compassion when communicating

From a practical standpoint, this decision is going to negatively impact someone else’s livelihood. Leaders should not take this lightly. Beyond the impact of laid off employees, what you communicate and how you communicate it will also impact the remaining employees’ perceptions. 

Own your mistakes

A willingness to admit your mistakes, if sincere, can go a long way. Don’t make the problem about anything or anyone else if you are truly at fault.  

Communicate the why 

Explain the circumstances the company is facing and when practical, allow employees to be part of the resolution before layoffs begin. Offering early buyouts and incentive packages could help ease the amount of people forced out of a job.

Provide resources and support to those affected
When integrity, honesty and healthy communication are part of the culture, leaders want to do everything in their power to alleviate the negative impact of these circumstances. When possible, offer ample severance to allow employees time to look for other jobs, along with career counselling and resume services. Consider leveraging recruiters to help individuals transition.

Layoffs will never be easy, but they can occur in a way that still respects the person and the contributions they have made to the company’s goals. Let’s honor people when they join the company and when they depart it — it is the least we can do. 

Courtney Malengo is founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. From concept to completion, Spark + Buzz designs creative and strategic solutions through branding, marketing, and public relations services. Malengo is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University.