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OWNER'S MANUAL

Layoffs: What to Say When Employees Ask

You want to tell them what you know--but can't. And you can't stay silent either. There's really only one thing you can say.

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Dear Jeff,

I have a great rapport with most of my employees. The problem is they sometimes ask me to tell them things I can’t talk about. How do I handle those situations without pushing people away?—Satya Bhandari

When you're in a leadership position, you know things you can't share with employees. That's a given.

Here's a typical situation. Sales are down, financial results are poor, layoff rumors have been swirling for weeks. Your employees know you've had several meetings to discuss options, one as recently as yesterday. During that meeting you decided to lay off several employees the following week.

One employee says, "I know you have been talking about layoffs. I'm really worried. I can't afford to lose my job. Can you please tell me what's going to happen?"

Now you're in a terrible spot. You shouldn't say. You can't say. But you've built a solid rapport with your employees, always answering questions and giving honest feedback. How can you respond without breaking confidentiality yet also without breaking the sense of trust you've built?

Hard as it is to do, you can't say what you know. But you also can't just say, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you." That non-answer will go out on the floor as, "I asked her and she said she couldn't tell me. If there weren't going to be any layoffs she would have just said so. So I know people are going to get laid off."

Clearly the short answer doesn't work. You have to go a little deeper.

Here's what you could say:

"You know we've been struggling. We've had a lot of meetings to look at options. I wish I could, but I really can't tell you anything at this point. It's not fair to others if I tell you things I don't share with everyone.

"Here's what I can tell you: Whenever decisions are made, and I can share those decisions, I will tell you and everyone else immediately. You'll be the first to know, and you'll hear it directly from me. I promise. For now, just know that we're doing everything we can to make a bad situation as good as possible."

Will the employee go away happy? No. He might even get angry or feel betrayed, especially if you have shared things in the past you weren't allowed to share. (Admit it; we all spill a few secrets from time to time, especially with great employees we trust.)

But this is one situation you can't leak. Don't assume the employee will be able to keep the news to himself. After all, you didn't.

Another key point: Being asked questions you shouldn't answer is made more difficult when your lips were loose in the past.

It's always tempting to share sensitive information with certain employees. Not only is it nice to have someone to talk to, sharing also builds a stronger relationship and bond... and makes running a business a little less lonely.

But that "openness" also makes any "I really can't tell you" situation that much more difficult and leaves the employee feeling shut out.

The best practice? Keep all sensitive matters to yourself, and never share information with a few employees that you can't share with all employees. If nothing else, that makes the situation you asked about a lot easier to deal with.

Have a question? Email questions@blackbirdinc.com and it may appear in a future column. Please indicate if you would like your name and/or company name to appear.

Last updated: Feb 23, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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