Kim Paone
By Kim Paone on April 18, 2023

Best practices for communicating RIFs

Highwire PR explores the right and wrong ways to communicate a reduction in force to employees.

Communicating RIFs_Blog (1)Many tech companies have made significant layoffs recently, including Twitter and Meta. In a shaky economic landscape, with a possible recession lurking in the shadows, the sad truth is that more tech companies will likely need to let go of employees in the coming months.

While a reduction in force (RIF) might be unavoidable for your company, it is possible to keep it from becoming a public relations crisis. How you communicate your downsizing or restructuring process matters immensely, and you need to handle it carefully. Google, for example, caused problems for itself because of the way it notified employees about their layoffs, with some workers receiving dismissal notices by email in the middle of the night. Other companies have let go groups of employees over Zoom rather than handling the communications in person or one-on-one.

Highwire believes there's a more respectful way to communicate a RIF, no matter the challenges a business might be facing. That respect, in turn, speaks volumes to the rest of the world about what kind of company you are.

The best way to tell employees about a RIF is through a strategic communications plan that conveys empathy and support. If you intend to reduce your workforce, it's critical to consider the timing of your announcement and be as transparent as possible. 

How not to handle a RIF

While a RIF is never easy, proper communications planning and delivery are vital for easing the stress and pain associated with this process, and communicating a RIF correctly can also help companies retain their most critical employees. 

Highwire has observed a deficiency of leadership and accountability during many high-profile layoffs, where CEOs have lacked transparency about the state of their businesses. Too often, business leaders sugarcoat the truth in a misguided effort to protect the reputation and valuation of their companies. Workers are surprised to learn their company is planning layoffs and those who remain in an organization might feel like they have been lied to, resulting in mistrust of management. On the other hand, sometimes employees know layoffs are coming, and the lack of communications from leadership can cause disruption and alarm for employees.

The point here is to always tell the truth, no matter how bad your business situation might be. Your employees will respect you for being so transparent. 

Another problem Highwire has observed is the poor planning and forecasting of layoffs. Some companies have let go of employees in multiple "rounds," often in quick succession. Conducting one round of layoff after another weakens trust and contributes to a perception that the company isn't taking decisive action, or that its leadership is over-reliant on layoffs as a way of responding to economic pressures.

Then there are the RIF announcements themselves. Bad timing and misalignment of communications can be very problematic for companies. For example, maybe an employee missed the company announcement and instead heard about it via social media. Aside from being an awful way to find out you no longer have a job, the message it sends to the world is that the company may be tone deaf, uncaring, or unempathetic. Ultimately, it can tarnish a company’s reputation and brand. 

Messaging must remain consistent across all channels. Inconsistencies in messaging when communicating RIFs can lead to public distrust, too. For example, CEOs might give a reason for laying off employees internally and then tell the media something else in a press release. When internal communications leak and they aren’t consistent with the external communications with the press, media or social channels, companies look like they have something to hide.

Other issues occur when communications don't start early enough or continue long enough, don't reach the intended audience properly or fail to strike the right tone. Sometimes, communications give a reason for a mass RIF but don't include information about severance packages and outplacement services, leaving HR teams to pick up the pieces. 

Do your corporate communications break through or break down?


Tips for communicating RIFs the right way

A RIF is never easy. Employees will be upset no matter the reason you let them go. However, communicating the correct information at the right time can help stabilize your organization, improve the morale of employees who stay at your company, and preserve your company’s reputation with the public. 

Highwire recommends creating a communications plan outlining the steps for telling employees about an upcoming RIF. Your planning should include the following:

Be clear about the rationale for the RIF 

You will want to be honest, transparent, compassionate and supportive in all your communications. Provide clear information about why you chose to lay off employees and the factors that led to this conclusion. 

Try not to be vague when communicating the reasons for a layoff. For example, blaming the "economy" for a RIF will only antagonize employees. Instead, tell them why the economy has created the conditions that require layoffs. 

Prepare your messaging

Start by deciding on the day, week or timeframe layoffs will occur. Stick to this date so you can plan your communications and help HR prepare outplacement services. You might want to tell other departments about your layoff date so they can also make preparations. For example, informing IT will make it easier for them to revoke system access for terminated employees. 

Also, prepare a script for the person who will communicate your RIF. This script should include why employees are being terminated from your organization in clear and concise language so everyone understands. Of course, employees will have follow-up questions after this initial communication, so prepare for those as well. If you have been involved in a RIF before, develop a FAQ based on your experience and provide talking points for leaders and managers. Doing so will ensure consistent communication across your organization and prevent the confusion that can be caused by mixed messages.

We often hear about shortcomings of RIF communications, but it’s important to note there are also a number of companies out there getting communications right. Airbnb is a great example. Co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s email to employees was published on the Airbnb blog, garnering media attention from outlets like Forbes and PRNEWS. Both found Chesky’s tone to be empathetic and caring, and the content of the communication to be straight-forward, informative, detailed and thoughtful.

Manage the fallout

Leaders should be on site and visible on the day of your RIF. A lack of leadership will only worsen the situation and could destroy relationships between managers and employees who stay at your company. 

Also, hold an all-hands call immediately after announcing your RIF, where you identify the people and heads of departments impacted by your decision. If you plan no further layoffs, communicate this clearly to department heads. You should also summarize any changes to your company's organizational strategy and focus and allow people on the call to ask questions. 

After your RIF announcement, managers should hold meetings with your remaining employees and share additional insight about the layoff. You should clarify any changes in duties, check individuals' workloads, and, again, allow for questions.

Continue communications

Continue communicating with employees in the days, weeks and months after your RIF announcement. Provide progress updates from senior leadership and continue to check in with managers. Effective communication about the future of your business can increase trust among remaining employees after a layoff and encourage a more positive workplace culture. 

It’s also just as important to continue communications with the press and on social media. The key is to make sure you have consistent messages across all channels, so your efforts are transparent and fully aligned. This can help establish trust in both the brand and its leaders. 

A final word about communicating RIFs

With so many tech layoffs recently, and more likely ahead, companies should prepare in advance and develop a communications plan - one that communicates the situation properly and considers the feelings of all employees, including those who will remain at your company. Follow the tips above for communicating RIFs and don't make the same mistakes as other organizations in your industry.

Learn more about how to excel in leadership in tech by contacting Highwire.

Published by Kim Paone April 18, 2023
Kim Paone