Regular layoffs are a sad reality of the tech industry that many people and companies are currently experiencing. I’ve read a lot of layoff notes from CEOs over the last few months, and I’ve realized that a lot of the communication around this subject is handled quite poorly.
Losing a job is an extremely difficult and emotional time for the people whom the company lets go, and it has a long-lasting impact on the remainder of the team who aren’t impacted as well. Because these communications are so important, organizations must get the message right and handle everything with respect and care, for both internal and external communications.
To draw some conclusions about how to handle such a difficult task, I’ve dug through layoff notices (which was as depressing as it sounds) to look for common themes among notes that properly communicate difficult news with respect and care. Here’s what I’ve learned.
4 Key Parts of a Layoff Announcement
- Time the communication properly.
- Take responsibility.
- Be clear and transparent.
- Help impacted employees.
1. Time the Communication Properly
Timing is a key element in communication, especially with something as sensitive as layoffs and restructuring. Companies should consider both when they’re going to tell employees and when they’ll make any information public. They should aim to make an announcement as quickly as possible between a round of layoffs and the impact for any affected employees.
Letting employees know about upcoming layoffs is a difficult message to send. Many organizations notify everyone about the layoffs and then quickly reach out individually to every person to let them know whether or not they’ve been impacted.
That’s what Lattice did in January 2023. Jack Altman, Lattice’s CEO, wrote in a note to all employees, “If you are one of the impacted Latticians, you’ll receive an email from me in a few minutes sharing more details and letting you know about next steps.”
Coinbase took a similar approach, though it needed more time for that follow-up communication to happen since it’s a larger company. The CEO, Brian Armstrong, wrote, “In the next hour every employee will receive an email from HR informing if you are affected or unaffected by this layoff.” Making this time as short as possible is key because, during that waiting period, all employees are naturally going to worry.
Another important element is employee access to company systems. During Twitter’s recent rounds of layoffs, former employees reported having access to their accounts removed before the layoffs were announced within the company. This is a jarring experience for people who have contributed to any organization, and removing employee access can easily be handled with a better grace period.
Finally, companies need to consider when to start talking about the company’s future. Many layoff notes express a lot of optimism for the future, which discounts the shock and fear that remaining employees feel. Coursera, which did a round of layoffs in late 2022, sent the relevant message and then gave the team the rest of the week to process everything before talking about the future. At the time, Coursera’s CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda, wrote, “This week is about giving everyone the space to process and grieve. Next week, we’ll have a separate session to talk about where we’re headed.”
Ultimately, timing is vital to communicating this hard message with sensitivity, and it’s worth getting the timing right.
2. Take Responsibility
There is a clear difference in the messages from leaders and CEOs who take responsibility for layoffs and those who don’t — they feel different. If an outsider like me can detect a difference, then employees can certainly tell when a message is sincere and when it isn’t.
Outside factors may play a role in layoffs — for example, inflation is really high right now — but the decision to reduce the company’s workforce rather than other cost-cutting options rests with the CEO and that’s how it will feel to everyone at the company, both impacted and not.
Chili Piper, which did a round of layoffs last year, took responsibility in the first few sentences of its message, writing, “It hurts to have to take this step, and we (Nicolas and Alina) take full responsibility for the decisions leading up to it.”
Mark Zuckerberg did something similar with Meta’s recent layoffs, opening the message by saying “I’ve decided to...” and going on to say, “I want to take accountability for these decisions and for how we got here.”
Note that this isn’t about the CEO’s emotional anguish about doing the layoffs. Rather, the goal is to take ownership as the decision-maker.
One critique common on social media recently has been that CEOs aren’t taking enough measures other than layoffs to help their companies achieve financial stability. I’ll add that, if there are, they aren’t sharing it in these messages.
For example, Meta undertook a hiring freeze to cut spending and highlighted this step in their note as an example of other ways they are looking to get on track financially. Similarly, when Buffer did a round of layoffs in 2016, the co-founders took a temporary pay cut of 40 percent of their salaries. This action demonstrated a commitment to doing everything in their power to cut costs. Taking and sharing these steps goes a long way to demonstrate actions in addition to layoffs that are helping get a company back on track.
People will lay the blame at the CEO’s feet if a company is doing layoffs. Excuses, blame, or a general lack of accountability may be a sign that a company’s leadership isn’t capable. Such a problem could impact trust across the company and lead to a poor reputation. For that reason, taking ownership of the part that any leader played in the company making layoffs is worthwhile.
3. Be Clear and Transparent
Some companies send out their layoff communications in such a fashion that you might not even realize that it’s a notice about layoffs unless you read it very carefully. The note is crafted to tell a compelling story about the organization and this exciting next chapter in its future while vaguely mentioning layoffs in broad terms like “transitioning out.”
A note about layoffs is not the time for ambiguous messages — it’s time to be clear about what happened, why it’s happening, and what’s next. Shopify’s message about layoffs followed this simple format, starting with an introduction, followed by how the company got to that point, a message to those leaving Shopify, and a section on the future.
As the saying goes, clear is kind. In this case, being open about what has happened is kind. Remember also that messages about layoffs can impact the company for years. Employees will see your message, but customers, community members, and future employees likely will as well. Being clear and transparent about what happened and the consequences of that outcome sets a strong precedent for the brand, whereas the opposite can have long-term, negative impacts on people’s perception of a company both internally and externally.
4. Help Impacted Employees
Finally, during layoffs, a surge of people often follow the news as reporters cover it or people share it on social media. Such coverage provides an opportunity to help the people who have lost their jobs. Several companies have started making public lists of the employees they’ve had to let go (with consent from those people) and have used those lists to help boost the profiles of former employees who are job hunting. Some companies make those same lists private and recruiters need to reach out for access instead.
Chili Piper published a list of former teammates looking for new opportunities on its website as a talent directory, and Wistia’s CEO simply shared a message on LinkedIn tagging the folks who were looking for new opportunities. This is a genuinely helpful way to assist those impacted in finding their next role since a lot of recruiters are on the lookout for lists of people who are open to work.
Layoff Notes Are Hard but Important
In an ideal scenario, we wouldn’t ever have to read another layoff note. In reality, though, there will probably be more. I hope anyone who is a leader writing those notes or is in a communications role involved with them can take a moment to reflect on how best to treat departing teammates with respect and to take care while writing messages that might be referenced for years to come.