|Linda Thomas Brooks|
Better.com is back in the news regarding its handling of company layoffs, and once again, unfortunately, their name is working ironically against them.
Some background: last December, the online mortgage lender’s CEO, Vishal Garg, unceremoniously laid off about 900 employees via a Zoom call, an action for which he received severe social media backlash, and for which he himself admitted he “blundered the execution.”
Last week, approximately 3,000 better.com employees were laid off, and this time a number of them learned of it not through Zoom but by finding what were severance checks in their Workday (better.com’s payroll app) accounts with no additional notification, as reported by TechCrunch and other news outlets. The company issued an apology, saying in a statement that, "This was certainly not the form of notification that we intended and stemmed from an effort to ensure that impacted employees received severance payments as quickly as possible.”
Respectfully, what should have happened as quickly as possible was a kinder and gentler way of alerting these employees—guided by a communications strategy already in place.
Amy Jenkins, chair of PRSA’s Employee Communications Professional Interest Section, feels the biggest mistake Better.com leadership continues to make is treating employees like disposable assets, as opposed to valued members of a team who have contributed to the organization’s success. “Perhaps the biggest oversight in the ‘plan’ was the impact of this announcement on employees they are hoping to retain,” Jenkins says. “This group has now been through two terrible rounds of layoffs and likely has lost all trust in leadership.”
Here are a few tips that all organizations should keep in mind when faced with difficult decisions affecting their employees—whether they concern layoffs or different, but also essential, matters.
• What’s the plan? First and foremost, a well-thought-out internal communications strategy should be created, implemented and consistently updated. It can be helpful to ask what I like to call the “W” questions, such as: Who is the plan for and who will be affected by it; What information should be shared and when; Have we considered all the potential outcomes of our actions and how they will be received by all of our employees. And there is no one size fits all when it comes to putting a plan together. Each organization will have its own priorities, procedures, etc.
• The same page. Make sure that senior leaders across all departments not only know of the communications strategy but that they have had the opportunity to contribute to it and understand how and when things will happen. No executives should be ever caught by surprise when such announcements are made, especially those decisions that have an immediate and direct negative impact on employees.
• The human touch. When a decision has been made and it’s ready to be announced, transparency and empathy should always be top priorities. Bad news is never easy to deliver, but when it is delivered, please keep in mind how it will affect those on the receiving end.
• Internal is never just that. It’s always a mistake to think that you’re talking only to your employees. In the age of social media, one person’s confidential disclosure is another one’s tweet. Plan for, and know how you’re going to respond to, all types of feedback, because they all will undoubtedly show up.
While better.com now has displayed two examples of what not to do when informing employees of difficult news, it is by no means the only organization that has found itself in these circumstances. We should all consider this latest event a teachable moment, and hope that going forward we all, well, do our best.
Linda Thomas Brooks is CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.