Conducting Layoffs? Don't Communicate So Much

We all know how difficult layoffs can be for everyone involved. A lot of time and effort have been put into discussing strategies on how to implement a layoff and keep survivors engaged. Something that doesn't get talked about very much, though, is retaliation. Nobody wants to believe that someone he or she has hired or worked with would be capable of destructive behavior, but losing a job can have a tremendous effect on someone. Employees who are terminated can have any number of reactions. While occasionally an employee might welcome the news, often the employee has negative feelings that can lead to destructive actions that can potentially hurt a business.

Any expert, consultant or analyst will say the same thing: Communication is the key to making a layoff go smoothly and keeping survivors engaged. It's this communication that's supposed to soften the blow for those affected and keep survivors focused on the task at hand. Is it possible, though, that communication may not have any effect on mitigating retaliatory behavior and, in fact, may exacerbate it?

A study published by the British Psychological Society suggests that communication may be useless, if not detrimental, if employees don't believe that their company has integrity to begin with. Researchers surveyed people who had been laid off and asked them about their feelings toward their company prior to the layoffs, how much communication they received about the layoff, and whether they engaged in any retaliatory thoughts or actions after the layoff. When employees trusted their organization, more information about the layoff caused retaliatory thoughts and behavior to drop off. This is the result most of us would expect. A lot of time is spent crafting the message to ensure people understand what is happening and why. This is called "informational justice."

However, when employees didn't think their company had integrity, informational justice actually drove retaliation impulses higher. They ranged from thinking about putting excrement on the boss's desk to actually deleting important company files or destroying property. When employees don't trust their company, communication - especially about layoffs - is perceived as insincere and can actually make people feel worse.

So if your company is thinking about layoffs and is concerned about negative behavior, think about the current relationships the employees have with the organization. If the company has not done a good job of fostering institutional trust, the tactics surrounding the layoff might need to be tweaked slightly. I'm not suggesting battalions of armed guards, or the old "pull the fire alarm and lock everyone out" layoff, but it might be a good idea to plan the event in such a way that employees will have little or no access to company files or property when the news is delivered.

This doesn't diminish the importance of communication in the event of a layoff. In fact, I would suggest the negative behavior discussed above is not a result of communication, but the result of a corporate culture that had been dysfunctional long before layoffs were even considered.
David Wentworth
David Wentworth, Senior Research Analyst
David Wentworth has been a research analyst for the Institute for Corporate Productivity since 2005. David has previously worked with digital media development and delivery, and currently researches several topics for i4cp, including workforce technology and the outsourcing of human resources. David has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts.