Thursday, January 29, 2009

How do you tell employees they're going to be laid off?

Every time you try to communicate, you choose a medium. Then you craft a message that will 1) help you achieve your purpose, and 2) appeal to the needs of the audience (factoring in context, culture and noise). If you want to create a shared understanding, you must choose your medium and language well.

Randy Falco, CEO of AOL, chose to send a long letter (871 words) to his employees this week. The letter concerns upcoming layoffs at the company. The letter represents the choice of the wrong medium and demonstrates a focus on the sender's concerns as opposed to those of the receivers. If you want to read a bad letter, check it out at:

In talking about the decision to lay off staff in the coming months, the too-long letter of 19 paragraphs features this kind of writing:

"...As a result, we will be reviewing our entire organization to further align resources and expenses against the real revenue opportunities in this difficult market. Part of this will involve consolidating groups to gain efficiencies that will unfortunately lead to head-count reductions. We anticipate this will result in a net reduction of our workforce of up to 10% over the next several quarters¬and we will attempt to finalize all domestic actions by the end of March. Reducing our workforce is never easy, particularly in the current climate, but our goal in doing this is to provide our core businesses the resources they need to thrive. Please know that, as always, we¹ll be doing everything we can to help and support those affected, including offering severance packages and other services...."

What do passages like these mean to the average Joe (the technology plumber): "align resources", "consolidating groups to gain efficiencies", and the ever-popular and ever-stinky "head-count reductions"? (All of this so that AOL can "provide ...core businesses the resources they need to thrive....")

Do the terms "euphemism" and "business BS" apply here? Yes. If you work at AOL do you want to read 136 sentences of this stuff? (BTW, the writing scores at a 14.1 grade level and a readability in the 30's, verging on the very-hard-to-read side of the scales). No, you don't want to read a letter this long. You want the CEO to level with you in plain language, not corporate speak, and with the briefest information about when you can expect the ax to drop on your head.

How should a CEO communicate this kind of news? In person. Hey, you're the boss, stand in front of me and tell me you're going to change my life, end my employment, casue me some real hardship. Let me ask you some questions, let me call you some names. But don't bullshit me with "head count reductions."

You can bet that if Randy had stood before the AOL people, in large or small groups, he wouldn't have used that kind of language. If he did he might have been stoned off the podium. If you must deliver this kind of bad news (and you're not losing your job), suck it up and do it in person. And, if you don't have the guts for that, don't tell me you're going to "align resources" or I might align yours!

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