I'm still amazed when I see how badly some companies screw up public announcements surrounding layoffs. It really isn't that hard to understand how to play this game (even if the corporate leaders really don't give a damn.)
To me, everything, from the decisions being made, to the communications delivered, should be executed with one key word in mind– empathy. Defined as: the ability to share in another's thoughts, emotions and feelings. This basic, yet critically important way of thinking is missing in so many parts of our business world today. For employees living in these horrifying times, it simply means identifying with the fear/pain they are going through, showing that you are human and care about the poor souls who are being let go. And, then act responsibly by at least communicating the right thoughts/feelings or actions.
I think that The Gannett Company really blew it earlier this week. Sorry to pick on Gannett, but this is a great case in point that proves my thesis. This large media company made another round of employee cuts. That's kind of par for the course in the media world these days. But, the real shocker is that its management decided to cut severance pay for the first time ever. And, that is both big news and an incredibly scary reality for many reporters who were laid off after spending five, eight or 15 years at the company.
Gannett tried to communicate that the severance pay program is merely being substituted for another alternative compensation one called “supplemental employment benefits." The problem is that it's very confusing and complex because with this program the company shifts the burden of having to outlay severance $$$ to state unemployment programs. And, those terminated employees have no idea what their package will be until they fill out unemployment documents and then wait to better understand how the system actually works.
Gannett's core message on this is that most (or many) employees will actually end up receiving close to as much as they would have in a real severance package. But, according to some experts who are quoted in this New York Times article (As It Cuts Jobs, Gannett Also Cuts Severance Pay,) that isn't entirely true and some vulnerable people could actually receive next to nothing.
The main problem here is that this transitional program is incredibly complex and hard to understand (for readers and employees) and Gannett does a simply terrible job of demystifying it and offering any real empathetic stance towards those people who were once loyal employees. The kicker for me is this statement from the company's spokesperson which comes across as clueless and completely uncaring. It reads, "The 1,400 people laid off this month should not think of the program as severance. The purpose of this is to supplement your unemployment while you're getting a job. It's a transitional pay, not severance."
Well... duh. It's obviously not severance. But, when you first read the quote, it comes across as corporate speak, almost non-understandable. And, certainly uncaring. Then, after I read it a few times, I realized that she is saying that while we're ripping any severance you used to be entitled to out of your hands, we are providing a real transitional benefit to you in other ways as you naturally move into that next career job that is (of course) waiting right around the corner. I think the true meaning behind the quote (if I understand it) is actually more insulting and less compassionate than I initially thought (i.e. don't insult these former employees by making it seem that any type of job is going to be easy to find right now.)
By the way, I did a quick blogosphere check. Not surprising, there are hundreds of mad conversations taking place about how poorly Gannett handled this situation.
A very smart client of ours named Dev Patnaik from Jump Associates authored a great book called Wired to Care. Dev spends his life helping companies become more empathetic to their customers, employees and other key audiences. The results are amazing because it allows them to live for an hour, day or ongoing in those audiences shoes and to truly feel their pain and needs. One opening true story from the book focuses on a design manager from a company that makes ambulatory products for seniors. The company's sales weren't doing well because the products just weren't hitting the mark. So, this manager decided to do something pretty amazing. For a week, she became a very old person living in New York City. Meaning – she not only dressed like a 78 year-old woman (wig, shoes, clothes, etc.), but also decided to go the extra mile by wearing the strongest bi-focal glasses (for poor vision), braces on her legs (so she would have trouble even moving around) and fake dentures (just to top it off in feeling every bit of pain.) Her transformation was amazing. More importantly, a week of trying to ride the bus, hail down taxis, or even just walk down the street, made her truly understand how this type of senior lived, what minute to minute problems existed (like how to even climb stairs) and how other people either ignored or somewhat discriminated against her because of her advanced age.
The net/net of this experience was that this designer was able to help make much more effective and relevant products for her audience because she lived in the most empathetic way possible to understand it.
While I'm not advocating that companies need to go this far, it is clearly time for the Gannett's of the world to change the way they think and act and starting showing more consistent empathy or it will greatly impact their ongoing reputation and business success in the future.