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The Formula Behind Layoff Emails


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When faced with the difficult task of communicating layoffs to employees, companies often rely on formulaic language and common themes to convey their message. But why do companies take this approach, and what are the most frequently used phrases in these emails?

To answer these questions, let's examine our sample of 20 layoff emails from major corporations. By analyzing the language and themes used in these emails, we can gain insights into the reasons behind the formulaic approach and identify the most common phrases companies rely on during these difficult times.

Why Companies Use Formulaic Language in Layoff Emails

Most executives have heard the phrase "let's not reinvent the wheel" when discussing a project, and emails and memos to all employees about company layoffs are no different. These communications follow precedent for several reasons:

  1. Legal considerations: Companies must be cautious about their language to minimize the risk of legal issues, such as wrongful termination claims.

  2. PR and reputation management: Consistent, well-crafted messages help companies control the narrative and present the layoffs in a way that minimizes damage to their reputation. Plus, many internal comms to employees are publicly released (as in the 20 examples in our product).

  3. Emotional distance: Standardized language helps create a sense of emotional distance, making it easier for leaders to communicate difficult news.

  4. Consistency and fairness: Using similar language ensures that all employees receive the same message, promoting a sense of fairness and reducing the risk of mixed messages.

  5. Best practices and benchmarking: Companies may model their communications on what other organizations have done, leading to standardization across industries.

  6. Efficiency: Formulaic language allows companies to create and distribute communications more quickly and efficiently when dealing with large-scale layoffs.

Common Themes and Phrases in Layoff Emails

With the help of AI, we analyzed our set of layoff email examples and observed the following patterns.

  1. "Difficult decision" or "tough decision": This phrase appears in 12 out of the 20 sample emails, acknowledging the human impact of the layoffs.

  2. "Positioning for the future" or "long-term success": 14 emails mention positioning the company for future success or focusing on long-term goals.

  3. "Efficiency" and "simplification": 11 emails discuss the need for efficiency, simplification, or streamlining processes.

  4. "Economic challenges" or "uncertain times": 9 emails cite economic difficulties, uncertainty, or changing market conditions.

  5. "Gratitude" and "appreciation": 15 emails express gratitude or appreciation for the contributions and dedication of the employees being laid off.

The high frequency of these themes highlights the common language and frameworks used by companies when communicating about layoffs. The most prevalent theme is expressing gratitude and appreciation for employees, closely followed by positioning the layoffs as necessary for the company's future success.

The Formula for Layoff Emails

Based on our analysis of the sample emails and best practices for communicating layoffs, we can derive a formula that companies can follow to effectively convey the necessary information while showing compassion for affected employees:

  1. State clearly and early in the email what is happening, when it will happen, who will be affected, and how they will be informed. This helps employees quickly understand the situation and reduces uncertainty. While this part of the formula may seem obvious, sometimes executives can resist specificity in these communications, sometimes out of fear over how the details may be received or that it would be more respectful to those affected to be less specific. While no one should be overly detailed in a communication like this (e.g., never share the names of affected employees), employees deserve some basic facts about what happened (number or percentage of people affected, the departments they work in, etc).

  2. Explain the "why" behind the layoffs with as much specificity as possible, linking the decision to the company's previously communicated strategy if you can. In our sample, 14 out of 20 emails mentioned positioning the company for future success, while 11 discussed the need for efficiency and simplification. Being transparent about the reasons helps employees understand the context of the decision. Intel's email states, "Today's announcement is about accelerating our growth strategy. And it's about driving long-term change to further establish Intel as the leader for the smart, connected world."

  3. Express compassion for those affected and gratitude for their contributions, which was found in 15 out of the 20 sample emails. If possible, provide information on how the company is supporting those impacted, such as severance packages, outplacement services, or extended benefits. However, strike a balance in tone, acknowledging the difficulty of the situation without being overly emotional. This best practice can be surprisingly hard to get right. In some cases, executives will axe any emotional language -- even saying something as simple as "thank you" -- out of desire to appear strong and resolute. Yet, for employees, it risks coming across as tone-deaf or cold. In other cases, particularly in organizations with strong cultures, the impulse to be overly emotional and almost funereal in communications can be strong. In these situations, it's important to remember that colleagues who are exiting will go on with their lives and there may be better ways to express personal grief over departures (e.g., a private message).

  4. Use clear, direct language throughout the email, avoiding jargon and buzzwords. While some emails in our sample contained corporate jargon, those that used straightforward language were easier to understand and felt more genuine. For instance, Meta's email states, "Unfortunately, with changes like this, some members of our team will be leaving the company. There is no tougher decision, but one we had to make for our long-term health and success."

  5. Conclude the email by expressing confidence in the company's future and reaffirming the commitment to the remaining employees and the company's strategy. This helps reassure and motivate those who will continue with the organization. Remember: your primary audience are the employees who are not leaving the company. Microsoft's email ends with, "When I think about this moment in time, the start of 2023, it's showtime -- for our industry and for Microsoft. As a company, our success must be aligned to the world's success. That means every one of us and every team across the company must raise the bar and perform better than the competition to deliver meaningful innovation that customers, communities, and countries can truly benefit from. If we deliver on this, we will emerge stronger and thrive long into the future; it's as simple as that."

By following this formula, companies can communicate layoffs in a manner that is informative, compassionate, and transparent. While the specific language may vary, adhering to these key elements can help employees better understand and process the difficult news, while also maintaining trust in the company's leadership and future direction.

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