We see it in the news so often, it’s almost become an expectation: In the wake of layoffs, cuts or downsizing, employees take to social media — or talk to the actual media — to share their thoughts, feelings, fears or opinions.
There’s no shortage of recent examples — one CBC journalist live-tweeted a town hall meeting about 657 impending layoffs at the public broadcaster; a dean at the University of Saskatchewan was fired and (temporarily) stripped of tenure after publicly criticizing a restructuring plan that involved job cuts.
It’s fairly common for employees to want to share their thoughts on social media, particularly about situations that are unpleasant or stressful, said Stacy Parker, managing director at Blu Ivy Group in Toronto.
"The reality is that most people will use social media, particularly when they’re not so happy with the way things have taken place. Especially during downsizing, it is a very challenging time for the entire employment culture," she said.
"Everything that a company has promised to employees about their corporate values and employee engagement and trust can be eroded within a day when it’s a downsizing exercise if it’s not done and communicated effectively."
Open, honest employee communications
Employee communication is such a critical element during a downsizing because being fair, open and transparent goes a long way, said Andrea Plotnick, national expertise director, organizational effectiveness, at Hay Group in Toronto.
You can’t really forbid employees from speaking out on social media, she said.
"To think that you can sort of rope people in so that it’s not going to leak outside the organization is not possible. We’re in a boundary-less society — anybody has access to anything, given the Internet," she said.
"You can’t forbid people from doing it. So my perspective is more about how you handle the layoff in the first place. And the best defence is really taking the high road as an organization — so having a very clear, fair, consistent process, where you’re treating people with respect."
Organizations that do the best job of it will have a clear communications plan in place, said Parker.
"During a downsizing… it’s a great time to step forward as a leader and say, ‘These are the things that we are hearing, I’d like to address what’s being said and make you feel comfortable.’ That transparency is critical and often, because we are led with the old-school concept that during terminations saying less is better for fear of litigation, it’s really important in today’s corporate culture that you are as transparent as possible, and really as human as possible," she said.
Zappos is a good example of how this can be handled well, said Parker. In 2008, it had to lay off about eight per cent of its employee base — but the CEO handled the situation with complete transparency.
"Not only did he do all of the (correct) things internally but (he) also personally started tweeting and blogging about the agony that he had to go through making those decisions, and what he would be committed to doing for those people that left, because they were a very valuable part of the company," said Parker.
"He also encouraged his employees to use their own judgment on how they communicated the news through their own social media networks. And what it ended up doing was actually building compassion and building trust within the organization."
Companies that don’t have this open communication miss the mark, no matter how well they take care of exiting employees, said Parker.
"They miss the mark with the people inside, who are now going through their own grieving process, and will make assumptions if it’s strictly an email that goes out from HR announcing the restructuring," she said.
"There needs to be one-on-ones with those people, there needs to be group meetings, all of the leaders need to be really present, because it gives them a sense of comfort that the leaders did agonize over the restructuring… they need to be present and they need to show that humility and that humanness, because it builds trust."
Protecting your employer brand
Open communication with employees is a key aspect of navigating a layoff — but what if the message still gets lost in translation when they take it online?
"It’s really easy for somebody to misstep and to say something on social media that is taken in the wrong context, or just reveals too much information to the media, without it being malicious," said Rachel Segal, digital strategist at Toronto-based Broad Reach Communications.
That’s why more and more companies are adopting social media policies or guidelines, said Amanda Brewer, senior associate, corporate team, at Broad Reach Communications.
"The social media policy can be as simple as the Ontario public government’s (situation where) none of their employees have access to Facebook at work, to if an employee sets up a Twitter account, they have to be very clear that the opinions they express are their own and not those of their employer," she said.
Employers can also put guidelines in place around who is allowed to speak to the media, said Brewer.
"I’m working on a crisis plan for a client right now and it actually is written in the plan that if an incident happens… that one of the protocols they follow is to request to employees that they not speak to the media," she said.
"Every employee is fully aware that if a journalist reaches out to them — if they get a tweet, a message on social media from a blogger or a journalist who is looking to speak to them — that they know who within the company to direct that to."
And it’s important to remind employees about these protocols if an incident does take place, said Segal.
"Even though you have these policies and contracts that are typically put in place, people aren’t necessarily thinking about those on a day-to-day basis. So it’s important, if there is information going out there or an announcement is going to be made, positive or negative, that there is that reminder and executive staff remembers that it’s important to say where they should direct people," she said.
But while having a social media policy is certainly not a bad idea, it’s important to consider how detailed or complex you want to make it, said Segal. In many cases, having social media guidelines might work better than a strict policy.
"The word ‘guidelines’ immediately is so much friendlier because it says that there is a bit of a conversation about it. In any event, no matter how it’s presented, it should invite people to ask questions, first and foremost," she said.
"By really cracking down hard and saying, ‘Don’t share anything,’ you might also be eliminating a possibility in the future to share something positive."
Policies and guidelines notwithstanding, the most important way to protect your employer brand is to treat employees well — especially during a layoff, said Plotnick.
"The best defence is a good offence, and your offence is about how you choose to treat people in the first place," she said.
"To the extent possible, when you do things fairly, respectfully and appropriately, it kind of lessens the impact of anybody going to social media.
"That’s the most critical piece — making sure you have nothing to hide."