The Lesson From the Microsoft Cuts: Don’t Mix the Message on Layoffs

This is not good. One of the guys on the marketing team I work with just got fired. OMG, they just fired another one. It is just crazy around here now.”

As I read the text messages, I could feel the tension that must have permeated this workplace.

The text was from someone who had been in the world of work for four years out of college. This situation with them went on for two days, and as I got the blow-by-blow, it felt like being in a war zone.

The question that probably popped in her mind was, “Am I next?” When I asked that question, her response was, “I honestly don’t know, but I do know that I am backing up all my work just in case.”

So when the dust settled, the leaders of this company called an all-hands-on-deck meeting to talk about the new corporate strategy. Oh, they also discussed the layoffs.

Who are these people?

My father would always caution me that you have to crawl before you walk. There are certain things you do first before you move on. For some reason, having a strategy session after putting your employees through two days of hell is now the right step to take.

Organizational moves like this may feel as if you cleaned out the cobwebs with the layoffs, but more importantly, you probably lost the support of the rest of your workforce.

There is one thing I have learned from this since the initial economic slide of 2008: You cannot cut your way to prosperity.

Later that day as I watched the news, I saw the notice that Microsoft had announced that they were laying off what is basically a small town of employees. Some 18,000 souls would be losing their livelihood. What I found amazing was that the announcement of this move discussed layoffs in the 11th paragraph of an email “laying out the strategic direction” of the way forward.

I almost wanted to go to their website to see whether it was mentioned that “people are our most valued asset,” but why bother?

What were they thinking?

Where do organizations get their direction from when they go about these things in a way that causes people to shake their heads in wonderment? What were they thinking? An all-hands-on-deck meeting after two days followed by a strategic email which mentions layoffs near the end is a classic example of organizational cluelessness.

We probably have all been involved in layoffs. We may have survived some, and maybe we were the target when they hit the bullseye on others.

You would think that as these discussions were being held, they would have centered around the dignity of doing the layoffs the right way. That should be the main focus once a decision is made.

You may lay off vast numbers or just a few, but what should be a major concern are the ones in your workforce who are left behind. They are the ones that you decided have the talent to carry out your “strategic initiative.”

The success of the organization depends on these people. But ask yourself — how engaged they are going to be if you bungled this process? How will they feel after having to sit and see their fellow employees walk into a room and get ambushed?

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How will they feel after reading through one of your emails which glowing lays out the strategic direction of the company, and oh, by the way, we are going to lay off 18,000. Your message corporate message gets lost in all of that.

Bungling the layoffs hurts everyone

I wonder: what class in business school covered layoffs? Maybe there needs to be a track in one of the many business conferences on how to do layoffs as humanly possible.

There was one sentence in the Microsoft announcement that said, “My promise to you is that we will go through this process in the most thoughtful and transparent way possible.” But later it said, “The vast majority of employees whose jobs will be eliminated will be notified over the next six months.”

So let me get this straight: You thought through this process and you want to make sure that you do this the right way and be as transparent as possible. But, your valued assets will not know their fate and if they are being laid off up to six months? Well folks, that is six months where they’ll find that work productivity  has gone out the window.

As I reflect over these two situations, I realize that this kind of bungling continue to go on. You would think that there would be someone who would learn from these kind of things and try to get it right. We all understand that adjustments will be made in the course of any business, but you should really try to give more thought to doing this with as much dignity as possible

Never mix the message

Leaders may not be aware they are doing so, but employees are constantly evaluating leadership sincerity and deciding whether or not to trust what they hear. They are looking for an alignment between what leadership says and what leadership does. They have to align.

You can talk about value, but then you de-value. Our employees are human beings that are wired in a way that they can spot BS a mile away.

So, as your leadership team is ensconced in your conference room making critical decisions about that most valued asset that you always speak of, try to spend as much time as possible on how you actions will be interpreted.

You may not consider this, but yes, everyone will be watching.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


2 Comments on “The Lesson From the Microsoft Cuts: Don’t Mix the Message on Layoffs

  1. Great post Ron —- and . . . there really needs to be a course in college in the HR curriculum on HR communications overall that includes as one of its topics — how to communicate layoffs. I can imagine what the workplace will be like for the next 6 months while employees wait for the other shoe to drop.

  2. I don’t care if it shows up in a college curriculum, it should be part of new manager training. And then again every so often for existing managers. And then another version for managers of managers.

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