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Empathise, apologise, be fair: how to lay off employees in these difficult times.
Last week, Airbnb CEO Biran Chesky announced that his company would be laying off 1,900 employees, comprising 25 per cent of the total staff. As a travel company, it was evident that Airbnb was going to be among the first to feel the heat of the pandemic. It was also clear that was weighing on the minds of the company’s employees. When they’d asked Chesky about it, the CEO had made it clear that ‘nothing was off the table’. We know this because Chesky, in his very detailed email, addresses it right at the outset. The email that was first sent to the employees and then published on Airbnb’s website is perhaps a masterclass in corporate empathy.
By publishing it on the website, Chesky also ensured that the message went out to the world in full, the way he had communicated it to his employees, and not piecemeal. All mass layoff emails get leaked eventually. By putting it out there in full, Chesky bypassed the game of Chinese whispers that eventually follows such announcements. Of course, it helped that Chesky’s email was the kind that you want to put out, simply because it serves as a shining example of how corporations should deal with mass layoffs, which seem inevitable in the months that follow.
So what are the lessons that we can take away from Brian Chesky’s email announcing layoffs at Airbnb?
1. Be open at all times
Even though this is the first email communication that people outside Airbnb saw, it is evident from the first sentence itself that Brian Chesky had been communicating with his employees. He starts off by saying that it was the seventh time that he had spoken to his employees from his house. So it is evident that Chesky was constantly in conversation with his employees, perhaps updating them about the developing situation over weeks or perhaps even months. This gives context to the layoffs email and it doesn’t just come out of the blue if you’ve been an employee. Being open about the state of the company helps build trust. It was evident that the Airbnb employees had raised concerns about mass layoffs and Chesky had, from what we can surmise from the email, addressed them saying nothing was off the table. And that’s the other important lesson.
2. Don’t lie to your employees or tell them half-truths
Chesky could have easily brushed off the query about the layoffs or simply not have addressed it. Instead, he chose to truthful and admitted that ‘nothing is off the table’. As a CEO you are not at liberty to divulge everything you discuss but by keeping your employees in complete darkness won’t take you very far. Most CEOs tend to address uncomfortable questions by saying ‘it isn’t being discussed at the moment’ (with the stress being on ‘at the moment’) which may not be a lie but also isn’t the truth. And so when they go from ‘it isn’t being discussed at the moment’ to ‘sorry we have to let you go’ they lose trust. Which is why it’s a lot easier to go from ‘nothing’s off the table’ to ‘we’re reducing the size of the workforce’. Because you haven’t lied to your employees nor have you spoken a half-truth.
3. Explain to them how you arrived at this decision
Any decision by a CEO tends to affect the entire staff in some way or another. This is truer still when it comes to layoffs. You can choose to do it clandestinely and hide behind the garb of ‘it was more difficult for me that it was for you’ or you can explain to your employees how you arrived at your decision. Which is what Brian Chesky does for a good part of the email. He takes his employees through the process of how he and his team approached reductions and reveals as much as he can about it. Most managers tend make layoffs about themselves, which is what makes them the villains. Of course it is difficult for managers to let go of their employees but this moment isn’t about you, it is about your employee who won’t have a job soon. Which brings us to the next lesson.
4. Be empathetic
Unless you were mill worker in Mumbai, you probably hadn’t heard of mass layoffs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If you lost your job, it was a blot on your career. Today, that’s no longer the case. Almost all of us know someone who has been laid off or have been laid off ourselves. The point is, mass layoffs are real and will be the new normal in the coming years. What makes you stand out is how you deal with it when you’re the one doing the firing. Again, Chesky’s email has some takeaways. Start with the severance, ensure it is fair. Money is a big part of why most people work and several people live from salary to salary. Airbnb is offering its US employees 14 weeks of base pay and an additional week for every year at Airbnb. Ditto with healthcare, which the company will cover for the next 12 months. As Chesky points out in his email, this is crucial at a time when the world is facing a pandemic.
5. Ask yourself, what more can you realistically do? And do it!
Being empathetic is one thing, going out of your way is another. In his email, Chesky says that Airbnb will be offering placement guidance to its laid-off employees. The company will also be making publicly available, an alumni talent directory which employees choose to be part of and one that potential employers can tap into. Chesky also says that a large part of Airbnb’s recruitment team will function as an Alumni Placement Team, which means it will help its laid-off staff find new opportunities. Aside from offering job support, Chesky also says that the company will let the laid-off employees keep their Apple laptops. Laptops are tools of the trade for most white-collared workers and most of us tend to not own a personal machine because our employers tend to provide us with one. And so, getting to keep your company laptop may not seem like a grand gesture but certainly is an important one. The thing is Airbnb didn’t need to do any of these things – offering job placement support, not collecting laptops from their employees – but it did and that’s what makes it stand out.
By taking away someone’s job, you’ve basically taken their livelihood. It’s possible that your employee was the sole earning member of their family and while you may not have been able to find a way to retain them, you certainly can apologise to them. And not the kinds that your lawyers drafted for you but a genuine, heartfelt one. That’s what Chesky does in his final paragraph. He apologises to his employees and thanks them for being part of the journey. He also offers words of reassurance, again, not the empty kinds but ones that seem to have come from the heart: “I am truly sorry,” he says, “Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.”
Layoffs can be tough – not just on those who lose their jobs but also those who stay back. How you deal with it as a leader is what makes all the difference. Brian Chesky’s email is an example of that. You can read the full email here.