News around restructures and layoffs have been a dime a dozen in recent times. However, a recent selfie posted by CEO Braden Wallake, who runs B2B marketing agency Hypersocial, crying on his LinkedIn has resulted in a major debate on the authenticity of the post, the tears and the individual.
Wallake shot out a post on LinkedIn, with tears streaming down his face, “This will be the most vulnerable thing I’ll ever share. I’ve gone back and forth whether to post this or not. We just had to layoff a few of our employees. I’ve seen a lot of layoffs over the last few weeks on LinkedIn. Most of those are due to the economy, or whatever other reason. Ours? My fault.”
He added that he wished he was a CEO who was “only money driven and didn’t care about who he hurt along the way". The post, which at the time of writing, had over 7000 comments, and 640 shares, saw a spiral of memes emerge with many posting their own crying faces. Others called out the CEO for being ungracious and labelled the image as “cringe-worthy”.
However, others such as former employee Noah Smith, spoke out for Wallake for always puts his heart on the line and being vulnerable in front of the public.
While being authentic and portraying “a real self” are hallmark trends of leadership today, the line between too authentic and not authentic enough is a tight one to walk on. One CEO that made headlines for the way he handled layoffs was Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, who wrote a letter to employees on the decision to lay off teams amidst the pandemic.
Lina Marican, regional MD of Mutant said that the recent examples of the “crying CEO” show that many organisations struggle with communicating layoffs. While there is no easy way to communicate staff reductions, there are ways to soften the blow.
“ As the CEO, the buck stops with you, which means that people will want to hear the news directly from you. Once your organisation has fairly decided how many people and who to layoff, it is important to make these announcements individually and face-to-face, rather than to groups of people,” she added. While being empathetic is a must Marican added that point must be delivered quickly and answers must be ready should employees have questions.
It is also important to outline next steps clearly – whether that is details about severance, returning company property or helping the person find another job.
“This is exactly what Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky did when he announced layoffs in 2020. He sent out a notice to all his employees, outlining how the company approached layoffs, and shared details around severance, healthcare and job support. Affected employees were also ensured one-on-one conversations with a senior leader in the firm. Finally, he ended his note with an empathetic and heartfelt message to departing staff,” she said.
Michelle Ang, growth officer for Ogilvy PR, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, specialising in Employee Experience (EX) added that while layoffs stem from a business decision, the impact on staff – whether those who are let go or those who remain – is emotional.
“That’s why a lot of planning goes into implementing and communicating a layoff. And part of that planning must include any communication that a CEO may make on the situation, whether in an internal memo, townhall, interview or on his or her social media,” said Ang.
She added that CEOs would do well to sense check what it is they want to say on difficult matters with their communications teams as a misstep in the choice of words, tone, even a selfie used, can impact the company’s reputation as an employer and as a business.
“Layoffs need to be managed by leaders with sensitivity, empathy and dignity. Clear, honest, timely and two-way communication is absolutely essential in a layoff. It should never be spontaneous,” she said.
Communications should be the conscience of the company
Darren Burns, regional president of Golin APAC shared that with major layoff announcements becoming more common, companies need to take a full stakeholder approach so communications teams should be strategically involved. This is to ensure that along with the layoffs, the company’s name isn’t dragged through the mud.
“Our founder had a saying: Don’t let high tech replace high touch. I think this is so true today. Laying someone off is probably the hardest thing to do as a leader - but it is way more difficult for the team member,” said Burns. As such, being as open and empathic, and supportive as possible, is always key.
“I have always believed that PR execs have a role to play in almost acting as the conscience of the company – bringing an empathic understanding of how communications is perceived to the table,” he added.
Moreover, it is truly during a period of layoffs when a companies' values really come to the fore.
“If the organisation really lives its stated values, they tend to perform well in tough situations. If the values are just platitudes on a website, the opposite holds true. That’s why believe internal and external alignment is so important,” he added.
Edwin Yeo GM of SPRG shared that companies should first focus internally on the impact layoffs have to staff and act accordingly, before even thinking about external communications.
“Layoffs are about cutting off a limb to save the entire body,” said Yeo. They should, ideally, be the very last option undertaken to protect the entire operation going under, which of course would then mean more job loss.
“Unfortunately, this is not what happens sometimes. We’ve seen in many instances that layoffs happen for other reasons. Sometimes, companies retrench to protect company profits, in an attempt to appease shareholders. Effectively, that saves the CEO’s job,” he said.
Yeo added that at the end of the day, the reality is if any company improves profitability due to the layoffs, or shareholder values go up because of it, this then creates the perception that employees were sacrificed for the CEO’s benefit. “That situation would be a tricky one, no matter how much anyone cries on social media,” he added.
So if the decision to let staff go was a last resort to keep the company alive, and not to keep raking in lots of profit, and all affected staff were assisted and communicated to in a sensitive manner, then you don’t need to cry on social media in an effort to show how difficult the decision was, said Yeo. Nonetheless, redundancies and layoffs are never simple.
"Redundancies, for one, is an unavoidable fact as companies automate more with technological advancements. Fundamentally, if the company does the right thing, which is to focus on staff welfare despite needing to make a very difficult decision to cut staff, then external comms become much easier,” he added.
Speaking under anonymity, another communications professional from the start-up industry said, it is important to remain real and honest and, of course, ready to support and serve retrenched employees in any way possible. “ Communications staff are the final help desk to the external world so they would require having all the statements ready for the press, and with these statements be real, be honest,” she added.