A friend recently told me about layoffs at their company. Half the employees were let go without a word from leadership. With many here one day and gone the next, those who remained were left to “marinate in their anxiety,” further eroding morale.  Bad news delivered badly.

Transparency is one of the most challenging things for senior leadership. It’s a tough act to be open and honest – and prepare colleagues – when legal and other reasons muzzle talk of potential layoffs, lawsuits against the company, accusations of wrongdoing, or questions about a new product that’s not ready for primetime.

While you may not be able to discuss specifics, there are ways to provide information to soothe anxieties and quell rumors.

Think before communicating.

  • Gather information and facts.
  • Assemble your legal, communications, and executive teams to determine what information can be shared and who needs to have that information.
  • Draft talking points that will allow for a clear and consistent message. Avoid saying one thing to one group and something else to another. Remember that information flows freely on the Internet and through the employee grapevine. And any broad internal communication should be treated as a public announcement, as the information will not stay within the walls of your office or enterprise. 
  • Draft statements and emails or create a CEO video based on your talking points.

Choose the time, place, and mechanism for communication.

  • Determine the best way to deliver information to your stakeholders. In the case of my friend it might have been good to have called an ‘all-hands’ meeting (virtually, in person, or hybrid) so that leadership can share information and demonstrate its continued care for employees. 
  • Sequence information carefully. For example, It’s never good for employees to hear about mass layoffs through social media. Make sure affected employees are told first. Don’t wait too long to let the rest of your team know. And have public statements ready to go to follow within minutes. (If you don’t tell the world, someone else will – and their version might not be nuanced or accurate.)

Show empathy and compassion.

  • Demonstrate compassion and empathy for how the news may affect your colleagues and other stakeholders. 
  • Use simple language. Don’t hide behind legal jargon.
  • In the case of layoffs, acknowledge the hard work and dedication of existing employees and thank them. For those who have been laid off, provide information about resources and assistance.
  • Respect employee privacy.

Be honest and transparent.

  • Share what you can about why layoffs are happening or what you know about another issue, such as an accident at your workplace. With support from legal and communications teams, explain as best you can why and how decisions were made and/or what steps are being taken to address a problem.
  • Use “I” statements. As a leader, it is vital that you own the decisions and actions.
  • If there are things you cannot discuss, be honest about it. In the case of accusations of wrongdoing by leadership or an employee, you can refer to a thorough investigation and explain how it’s inappropriate to discuss the situation until that investigation is complete.  In the case of layoffs, employees likely want to know if their jobs are at risk. If you don’t foresee additional cuts, say so. If you are uncertain, you might say something like, “As you know, our sales (or revenues or donations) have been down. While we do not want to make further cuts, I can’t promise that we won’t have to re-evaluate our situation.”

Bad things happen to good companies and organizations – economic downturns, poor reception for a new product or service, bad behavior among company representatives, and the list goes on. While most organizations worry about their reputation externally, it is equally important to make sure you are communicating to the people who are responsible for that reputation – your employees.