"Dave is 100% professional and comes across as an expert in his field. He keeps things casual and non-threatening and uses group involvement to make sure everyone is contributing.” Adidas executive

January 2003

"Can't Anyone Around Here Say What They Really Mean?"

You've probably heard the euphemisms before: "right sizing," "restructuring," "reductions," "downsizing,' "re-engineering," and even "normal involuntary attrition" (who came up with that one?).

Of course they all mean the same thing: firing people. The euphemisms are often the product of ego and a reluctance to admit mistakes. But every time managers use one of these ridiculous phrases instead of saying it in plain English they subtract from the one thing all companies can never afford to lose: credibility.

Often, the first casualty of bad news is communication. Laying employees off is horrible - no matter what term you use. But there are some mistakes to avoid when it comes to communicating bad news. It's like when your mom made you take your medicine when you were a kid - you knew it'd taste bad; you knew it would help eventually, but you sure didn't want to do it. That's layoffs in a nutshell. Here are five suggestions from DASH Consulting on how to handle communications during layoffs:

1. Be Proactive - there's a saying in politics: "vote early and vote often." It's usually employed, partially in jest, by politicians running for office. But in the corporate world being proactive - getting in front of employees early and often during a crisis - can make a world of difference. Without facts, rumors, speculation and outright lies will circulate freely. Communicate what's going on as soon as you can - in plain English - and be prepared to answer tough questions from employees.

2. Listen - intellectually, employees understand that companies exist to make money. But layoffs aren't intellectual for those whose jobs are in jeopardy they're emotional. No one ever learned anything by talking. If you want to take the pulse of your employees convene a few of them over coffee or lunch and ask them how they feel. Be direct and sincere and you will get direct feedback and sincere expressions in return. Dialogue always beats monologue and when times are tough employees appreciate candor and openness.

3. Own Your Decision - blaming "the management" looks pretty funny when you are the management. If you're a manager it's your responsibility to communicate what's going on to your employees. Do so clearly and with compassion. "I don't know" is an acceptable answer for some questions - because companies often don't know if they'll need to take further actions. It's difficult but your credibility is on the line in these situations.

4. Speak English - it sounds obvious but choose the words you use carefully and speak them clearly and repeatedly until you get your points across. Your employees are wondering "what's going to happen to me?" Hearing you talk a foreign language - calling layoffs "normal involuntary attrition," for example, doesn't help much.

5. Be available - management by wandering around, the old Hewlett Packard style, is doubly important during a crisis. And make no mistake, for the employee whose livelihood is on the line, this is a crisis. Closed door meetings are unavoidable in layoff situations, but managers being visible and available, credible and candid helps calm frazzled nerves. MBWA is difficult for some managers, but those informal chats can be worth more to your employees than a dozen formal meetings.

A few years ago a small technology company in Portland, Ore., planned to layoff around 35 of its 140 workers. These were the first such cuts at the company and its senior managers were extremely worried. Internally they did a good job of handling the layoffs. They demonstrated compassion - outplacement counselors were made available; the meetings were conducted swiftly and the company fully complied with the WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which requires some companies to give employees 60 days notice of termination in certain circumstances) even though technically they didn't have to.

However, externally the company insisted on not proactively communicating the news to the handful of local reporters who followed them - despite strong counsel to the contrary. This changed rapidly when one of the laid off employees forwarded an internal e-mail to a local newspaper reporter, forcing the company to play communications defense. When you face layoffs it's better to proactively deliver the news to outside constituencies - the media, investors, partners, etc. - because that allows you to deliver facts in the right context and with the right messages. But even then it won't exactly be fun. Handling layoffs is painful. And even though the short term pain can be intense companies have to take their medicine and move on - Mom was right (of course).

For some examples of what not to do in corporate communications the site www.fuckedcompany.com has several internal company memos that would be funny if they weren't so sad. One employee at an Arizona-based company claimed he hadn't got a check for three pay periods. Maybe it was coincidence or maybe the company president was attempting to distract his employees, but here's part of an e-mail he sent out during the payroll upheaval:

"... I want to ... institute Friday Funnies. Friday is casual dress day, so lets also make it Friday Funnies DAY. If you have something humorous to share, save them and send 'em out on Friday. Here is one that I chuckled about: ..."

We suspect his employees would have laughed a little harder if they'd gotten paid.

And finally if you must use silly euphemisms for layoffs, use those from Al Lowe's Humor Site, which include: "eternity leave," "transferring to the couch division," "enlarging the cult of Oprah," "returning yuppies to the wild," and "corporate liposuction." At least then the stupidity of such language will be apparent to everyone involved.

We always welcome your thoughts and opinions. If you'd like to contact DASH Consulting click here or send us a note at dave@dashconsultinginc.com

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