Mailbag: How should HR communicate hiring freezes, layoffs?

In HR Dive’s Mailbag series, we answer HR professionals’ questions about all things work. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]

Q: I keep hearing rumors about hiring freezes and layoffs. How should I message those changes if they happen at my organization?

Employers have plenty of examples to learn from when it comes to delivering bad news. The notorious Better.com Zoom call — in which 900 employees were laid off at once — may come to mind.

To avoid becoming such an example, “get into the mode of empathy,” Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness and former consultant for Zappos, told HR Dive. Lim explained that HR pros should reflect on a moment in which they felt a sense of loss — perhaps not a layoff or hiring freeze, but another form of surprising, unfortunate news: “What did they feel? What did they do? What questions did they have?”

Then, an employer needs to be transparent and honest about the situation, explaining how and why the company is in the position it is in. “I think the biggest misstep is not communicating the ‘why’ first,” Lim said. Use clear language and avoid euphemisms meant to soften the blow, as it can often make the situation feel worse, she added. 

Be cognizant of how the news is communicated. If the company usually communicates important news via email, it would be wise to maintain a similar course — but ideally, employers should allow one-on-one communication with leaders where possible, Lim added. Vulnerability and openness are key, including a willingness from leaders to show their emotional side.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky provided a good example of communicating the worst-case scenario toward the beginning of the pandemic, Lim said, when Airbnb laid off 25% of its workforce. Chesky wrote a message to workers that was published on the company website.

“I really respected what AirBnB did at the beginning of the pandemic,” Lim said. “I think why his message and email were received so well … is because you could tell it was written by him.” The letter went into detail about how and why layoffs were decided and also offered details on what laid-off workers would be offered as far as support, including dedicated internal resources to help those workers find another job. “That level of detail really felt from the heart.”

A hiring freeze may not be as catastrophic personally for workers as a layoff, but with employees already burnt out from understaffing, communication will be key to keeping workers engaged when finding more help is off the table, experts told HR Dive.

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