Announcing internal change, especially if it involves layoffs, can be a nerve-wracking communication challenge. It is so nerve-wracking, in fact, that many faint-hearted CEOs are conveniently absent, delegating the unpleasant chore to underlings.
As a general rule, bad news should be the business of the CEO. Only he or she can put the bad news into some understandable context, align it with the organization’s vision for the future and point to a constructive way forward.
The constructive way forward isn’t just for the employees who will lose their jobs; it’s also for the employees who will remain. How well that pathway is laid out will influence the morale of the continuing workforce.
Layoffs aren’t the only internal communication challenge. Any kind of change – from a modified health insurance plan to a new owner – can create anxiety among employees. The change doesn’t have to be galactic – for example, removing soft drinks from the lunch room vending machine – to generate an employee reaction.
Executives who carefully render financial, operational, sales and logistical plans too often treat internal communications in a slapdash fashion, with little forethought and haphazard execution. Sometimes “planning” boils down to assigning someone other than the CEO to be the hapless messenger. Flak jackets aren’t provided for the fall guys and gals.
This is a huge oversight considering employees can be the most influential ambassadors for a company, nonprofit, public agency or brand. If you think of employees as strategic partners, which they are, you should conclude they deserve thoughtful, plainspoken and truthful communications, whether it is good news or bad news.
Elizabeth Baskin, an internal communications specialist writing for ragan.com, offers useful suggestions of how to think strategically about internal communications. That begins, she says, with giving employees more than a superficial whitewash of what’s occurring.
Baskin believes internal communications should pivot on organizational vision, starting with making sure employees know what the vision is. “That vision can help anchor employees in times of change and reassure them that the change is part of a larger strategic plan,” she says.
Any kind of change can cause jitters, so relating changes – big or small, bad or good – to an organizational vision can be stabilizing. Employees can see the change in the context of a bigger picture. It may not make a pink slip any easier to swallow, but it can give an employee a sense of why the pink slip was necessary. For employees who will bear a heavier workload, it can be reassuring.
When the news is bad, internal communications needs an empathetic tone and personal. Think of it as talking to members of the business family. “Don’t sugarcoat it nor spin it nor put off communicating the news,” Baskin advises. “National research indicates that employees want to know as soon as possible – especially if it’s bad news.”
It is naïve to expect bad news can be contained. Expect the opposite – that the details of the bad news will be shared on email and social media even as you are sharing it with employees. Don’t get outraged; be prepared to answer media inquiries.
Communicating change to organizations with far-flung operations and multiple offices is especially challenging. Teleconferencing provides an avenue for the CEO to deliver the news to everyone at the same time. It’s worth solving whatever logistical challenges may exist to pull this off successfully.
Baskin’s final piece of advice is to humanize your messages, whether good or bad. “Communicating the nuts and bolts of the change is important, but we must also link it to human outcomes.”
Change is disorienting. CEOs usually have to approve it. They also should be the ones who share the news of it to employees. If they believe employees are their organization’s greatest assets, they should treat them like great assets.