Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Every time I think that there is hope for corporate leaders treating their employees like true assets and investments, a CEO comes along and does a truly boneheaded thing. Like sending a layoff letter to almost half the workforce that contains the (run-on) sentence:
“Although we can’t continue on this journey together–I hope you will all stay connected with ______ and know that your contribution to the business was a unique moment in time and that you participated in something that few have been part of in our industry.”
The unfortunate sender of said letter was Mike Jones, the CEO of MySpace. The letter was sent to roughly 500 employees, or 47% of the company’s workforce. I am willing to give Mr. Jones the benefit of the doubt here, and I will assume (at the risk of all that word means) that his intentions were good – that he truly was regretful about having to pink slip half the same workforce that he had been exhorting and encouraging to reinvent MySpace over the prior months. Good intentions aside, it takes pretty disconnected leadership to even think that the workforce doesn’t read the business and/or industry press basically trumpeting that the parent company is thoroughly dissatisfied with the unit’s performance and is considering selling, merging or spinning off. And it takes pretty clueless leadership to think that exhorting and encouraging people to work on a relaunch, then laying them off, isn’t going to incur anger and bitterness. I don’t have a word for what kind of leadership rubs salt in the wound (albeit unintentionally, I hope) by expressing hope that those laid off will remain connected with the company after all that.
There is no question that layoffs are hard – hard for those doing the laying off, harder for those being laid off. Sometimes I think corporate leadership (with the help of HR departments) worsen the impact of layoffs on the workforce (both those leaving and the survivors) by trying to “softball” the message, include too many lines about heavy hearts (doubtful anyone believes that stuff) and the need to “provide the company with a clear path to sustained growth and profitability.” Sometimes I think it would be better just to keep is short, simple, to the point:
“The company cannot continue to keep you employed past XX date due to our business not performing as expected or needed. We thank you for your service. Next steps are as follows: … severance… COBRA coverage… turn in equipment…”
Just the facts, ma’am. And that’s really all that should be included in a written notice. I know that the temptation for HR, corporate, division, department leadership is to include more, to explain and justify. But to my fellow business and HR leaders – before you go about writing and sending the long-winded layoff letter filled with explanations and justifications, ask yourselves this question: who are you trying to make feel better about the layoffs, really? Is it the laid off employees you hope to console? Or is the true intent to lessen your own discomfort with the decision, to somehow absolve yourself of any accountability in the running of the business that led to the need and decision to lay people off?
Leadership is tough. It’s difficult. Sometimes it Really. Just. Sucks. But one reason (some) good leaders (should) get paid the big bucks is because they are people to undertake the unpleasant aspects of leadership with the same grace, equanimity and authentic humility as they do the more pleasant aspects of leadership. And the really good leaders know that intent doesn’t cut it; impact is the name of the game. Sadly for MySpace, the impact of the layoff letter likely didn’t match the intent of it, and it is the impact that lasts.