You hire PR people to make sure your good news is spread far and wide and that your bad news never sees the light of day (or at least it's spun in a way that is best for your company). So Walmart thought they would have a great day with a great announcement: Raising their internal minimum wage to $11 an hour, hand out bonuses, and announce an increase in maternity and paternity leave. Talk about a great day!

The only problem was that the other half of the business, Sam's Club, closed 53 stores and announced the conversion of 10 stores to fulfillment centers on the same day. Note, they didn't announce it: they just had people show up to work and, surprise!, we're closed.

Now, clearly, this is a PR disaster. PR people should know that the news about Sam's Club closing would hit the papers (so to speak) and they should have released a statement first. As CNN reports:

"This is a fantastic example of a company just not realizing exactly how quickly information travels," said Ed Zitron, founder of the media relations company EZPR.

Executives may have figured that by not announcing the store closures, they could bury the news, he said.

"They're trying to pull the wool over people's eyes," he said. "They just made a rapid miscalculation."

Personally, I'm going to blame HR for this one.

Oh, I know, this is a PR failure and that ultimately means that this is a senior leadership failure because I can't imagine an experienced PR person would have advised them to just cross their fingers and hope nothing bad happened. So, why does HR even come into play with this?

Let me tell you, I've been involved in the layoffs of literally thousands of people. Most were good people who simply happened to be in the wrong position at the wrong time. And I can tell you that they handled this incorrectly (or were overruled by senior management).

You always assume that layoffs will go public about 3 minutes after you tell the first person. And the Sam's Club method of just locking the doors? Well, you've not only got employees who will live tweet, you have customers who will live tweet. That news is going public faster. And that means that some employees will find out from the internet before their bosses say anything. That is wrong.

HR is generally responsible for layoffs and they should have had the PR statements drafted and released to the media simultaneously with the first notifications. And those notifications should have taken place personally--at least over the phone--rather than having people show up to locked doors.

Another thing you do with a layoff is double check dates. Is it a holiday? Of any sort? What other news is the company announcing? Should we do this on the same day? The answer should be no, of course. Announcing raises and layoffs at the same time back it look like the one group is benefiting from the other's loss of jobs. Maybe they are, and maybe they were completely different business decisions. The point is, this should have gone into the decision calculus.

Look, when you give someone a raise, you just have to tell the person and everything is great. When you lay someone off, you are pulling their means of support out from under their feet. When you close 53 stores at the same time, you can guarantee that no single person is responsible for his or her own job loss. This is a group effort.

I'm not opposed to layoffs. They are sometimes necessary to keep a business profitable. I am opposed to thoughtless layoffs where the people are treated as an afterthought. You should do everything in your power to treat your employees well. They've dedicated a large portion of their lives to you and you should be as kind as possible.

Yes, these employees will get 60 days of pay, as mandated by federal law*, and some will receive severance, and they should be eligible for unemployment payments, but it still stinks to lose your job on the same day that the business announces raises for the other half of the business.

I don't know for sure which thing should have been done first--probably layoffs first and then a few weeks later, the raises, but they certainly shouldn't have been done together.

*Generally, you don't have to legally provide any money to a terminated employee who is at-will (which is most US employees), but if you lay off a large percentage of any one worksite or close a location down, you either have to give 60 days notice or pay employees for the 60 days. Walmart announced they would do this, which is required under the WARN act.

Published on: Jan 15, 2018