Layoffs, administration, mergers: how to deliver bad news

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OLD CHURCH STREET — The front of my paper says that Woolworths will be no more in a few weeks. Lay-offs are being announced in 5-figures already. And deep down, we all know that the bad news has only just begun.

But we just carry on about our business. Much the same way that Londoners (myself included) got on the Tube again the day after the July 7, 2005 bombings.

“What else are we meant to do?!”

Well, quite a lot actually.

Here are just some of the things that companies should be doing as the economy falters.

1. Teach some basic economics
There is a reason why our economies haven’t been returned to the Stone Age. There are underlying facts about each of our businesses that will keep them afloat. There is integrity to our public finances (government cash) that we can tell people about.

No one is writing about this yet. When they do, then we will have turned a corner.

Who is going to go buy a new TV when you don’t know if you might have to use it as shelter for your cardboard house under a bridge?

2. Demonstrate honesty, caring and dependability
People are looking to their businesses to give them a sign of what is yet to come and how it might affect them. If they can’t trust what is coming out of your mouth, then they’ll start looking at what you ‘do’ for signals.

One way or another you are going to ‘communicate’ what you are thinking — and therefore, what you believe to be important. If people have to learn about the business by watching you rather than listening to you, they are going to resent it.

Why not communicate properly?

You will gain credibility by being honest and that is credit at the proverbial bank for when you need it in the future.

3. Make ‘people promises’
Every big business is inherently set up to ensure that employees are dealt with in a responsible way in the event of a downturn. In Europe, Canada and Australia there are state requirements. In the USA the private insurance plans are often very generous.

Tell people what the business will aspire to uphold in the event of calamity. “We will always treat people with respect and dignity.”

If your lawyers and HR people tell you not to… and they can’t give you an immediate, business altering reason not to… I suggest you fire them on the spot. (They’ll be treated with dignity and respect.)

4. Communicate a lot
[Human] Nature abhors a vacuum. If you aren’t commenting on the latest rumour or the newest headline then someone else in your company is. Who do you think that is? Is it Trevor in the post-room? Or the lady who drives the shuttle bus? That ancient monolith who writes in the Daily Mail?

People will get their opinion from somewhere. Why wouldn’t you want that to be you?

It doesn’t have to be the CEO. In fact, it shouldn’t be the CEO. You should build new channels, if you need to, to get to as many managers as you can with the daily news. This is how you’ll build your honesty, credibility and dependability. (Did you see what I did there?)

5. Over-manage the bad news
No one ever believes me when I say this, but when we managed a series of lay-offs recently, people actually said ‘thank you’ as they were leaving.

Redundancies, site closures, mergers, sales… are all difficult and emotional things for organisations to have to deal with. As a result we all walk wide circles around them. And they become orphans of the corporate communications world. That is so wrong!

Major organisational change programmes don’t become any less major because you refuse to acknowledge them. Just the opposite.

Get really stuck in. Invest the appropriate resources and time. And ‘own’ the bad news. It’ll stick to the company anyway. Why not manage it right.


If you have a communication function in your business that is not working flat out right now, then maybe you should have a word with them. Or, can I?


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