Layoff Messaging for Tech Companies
The pandemic hiring spree was a zero-interest rate phenomenon: We’ve seen over 300,000 tech layoffs in the past two years, and we’re on track to hit half a million total by 2025. Throughout this nonstop cycle of tech layoff news, we’ve seen every communication approach imaginable, from graceful statements to disorganized scrambling and shamefaced silence.
Poor layoff messaging has dire long-term consequences. For example: In 2023, Google laid off 12,000 employees, and Microsoft over 16,000. Now, Google is in the midst of a morale crisis, with both current and former employees publicly blasting the company for lack of vision and leadership failure. By contrast, nearly the entire staff of OpenAI threatened to go work for Microsoft last December. Their main motivation was loyalty to Sam Altman, but Microsoft also emerged from their layoffs with a much better reputation than Google among AI engineers. Why? Microsoft CEO Satiya Nadella’s textbook layoff communications treated employees with dignity and communicated a clear, AI-focused path forward for the company. Google, however, let people go via email – a move Google CEO Sundar Pichai has admitted was a mistake.
Layoffs are painful, but they are a normal part of the modern technology company lifecycle. When facing layoffs, you must build and follow a comprehensive messaging playbook that protects your reputation and relationships.
Yes, You Have To.
Many executives would prefer to deflect attention away from a workforce reduction. However, maintaining silence during the layoff process can have dire consequences. Employees will sense what’s happening, and their uncertainty will degrade morale and productivity. Depending on your company’s stature, secretive layoffs may also fuel industry speculation on the health and future of your company. Without a statement, rumors fester, and you cede control of the story to those who suspect the worst.
What to Include in Layoff Messaging
Layoffs should be approached like any other major tech PR announcement, with foundational messaging and FAQs in place. You need to be ready with talking points for:
- Why the layoffs are happening.
- The selection criteria for who is being laid off.
- Support for outgoing employees.
- What the future holds for your company.
Consider all potential audiences when developing this messaging: employees, of course, but also media, customers, business partners, investors, analysts, etc. The goal is not to develop different messaging for each group: your message should be consistent, avoiding the impression that you’re changing your story. You don’t have to include all these talking points in every statement, but you do need to be ready to answer tough questions.
Layoff Messaging Best Practices
If you must lay off employees, do it right. Thoughtful layoff messaging does more than protect your reputation; it demonstrates your respect for both current and former employees. Here are the top guidelines to keep in mind:
- Lead with empathy. It may be tempting to downplay the impact of a layoff on your organization, but the impact on affected employees is always monumental. Acknowledge this and avoid minimizing what they’re going to with phrases like “minor staff reduction.”
- Avoid euphemisms. It’s okay to use terms like “eliminating positions,” “rightsizing,” or “reorganization” if they accurately characterize the nature of the layoffs. However, if you avoid the term “layoff” entirely, you risk looking evasive.
- Own the decision and the factors that led to it. State the real reason for the layoffs, including circumstances outside and within your control, as clearly as possible. Focus on the larger context and avoid implying that the impacted employees were at fault. There is no need to rub salt in the wound.
- Look people in the eye. Don’t send an email. Don’t call impacted employees into a meeting and let them go en masse. Take the time to communicate with laid-off employees respectfully and personally.
- Have an ongoing dialogue with remaining staff. If your existing staff feels their jobs are still at risk, they will head for the door. Hold team meetings to update staff on the layoff process, including when it concludes. Make sure they understand their role in the future of your business. Check in with teams and individuals to make sure they understand any new responsibilities and are adjusting to the changes. Keeping the lines of communication open will help keep your top talent engaged.
- Be optimistic, but not crass. Layoffs are a moment of transformation. Share what you can about how these difficult decisions will support your business’s success – but beware of tipping into an overly self-promotional statement.
- When possible, avoid a drawn-out process. A clean cut is easier to heal than a festering wound.
It’s All Public
Make no mistake: good layoff messaging requires public relations expertise. Every element should be something you’re willing to see in the press – we’ve seen stories this year quoting leaked memos, first-hand accounts of chaotic all-hands meetings, and even livestreams of the layoff itself. The high visibility of layoff actions requires that each message be delivered with the utmost thought and care.
This is part of why an official, documented layoff messaging plan is so essential: During a reduction, management must always be on message. A tone-deaf email or defensive improvisation could go viral.
Layoff messaging is some of the most delicate and vital communication a company does. You may not want to talk about such a painful subject, but you absolutely cannot be seen to hide. It’s a critical moment to demonstrate leadership, shoring up faith in your brand both within and without.