It’s the toughest job in the human resources business. But communicating a reduction in force to employees is an ideal opportunity for you to live out your company’s values.

Here you’ve worked so hard to develop an organizational culture that values people, optimism and opportunity. And then that crashes head-first into an economic reality that dictates restructuring your workforce. How can you navigate tough times while keeping your culture intact?

Here are some tips for a supportive communication approach before, during and after the announced reduction in force.

1. BEFORE: Create a Culture of Transparency

If you’re already faced with communicating layoffs to employees, you’ll be working with a foundation that has already been laid. But you can begin planning now for the future with a strong internal communication program that supports a resilient culture and treats employees as business partners.

  • Communicate your organizational vision and values regularly. Be sure to include financial health and sustainability as key pillars.
  • Share regularly about the economic health of the organization and your current growth prospects. People don’t want a lot of detail, but they value knowing how the organization is succeeding, and what the key challenges are.
  • Surprised people behave very badly! Make employees aware of economic conditions on a regular basis so that the inevitable restructuring or layoff won’t be a bolt out of the blue.
  • Invest in a culture of opportunity so that employees are continually growing and developing rather than stagnating, which makes them more vulnerable in a layoff.

Communication Tips: Support a culture of self-care and resilience. Resilient employees are more likely to recover quickly from a layoff and see the bigger picture.

2. DURING: Demonstrate Smart Compassion

First, do what’s smart to avoid doing further damage to the organization. When creating layoff communication to employees, it’s essential to have a thoughtful plan that anticipates the needs of all stakeholders.

  • When announcing a planned layoff or reduction in force, whenever possible, avoid surprising HR and managers and leaving them without resources.
  • Stay ahead of the rumor mill. Lead proactively with timely and factual information. When people perceive gaps in information, they will fill in the blanks themselves — usually with a worst-case scenario.
  • Social media is at everyone’s fingertips. Expect the news to go public, fast. Depending on your visibility in the local community and the size of the reduction in force, consider preparing a media release explaining the decision and how terminated employees will be supported.

Second, do what’s compassionate and consistent with your organization’s culture and values.

  • While it may be tempting to just “rip the band-aid off” and get it over with, remember it won’t be quick for employees to process. Leaders will need to stay engaged through the full transition period.
  • Articulate a clear business case for the restructuring with a firm but empathetic tone. Make it clear what other options were considered so that the decision doesn’t seem arbitrary.
  • Don’t apologize for the decision, but acknowledge the people directly affected and offer genuine, material support. Other employees are watching, and it will speak volumes about the company’s real values.
  • Make space for anger and grieving. These are normal human reactions to bad news and are an important part of processing and healing. Give people channels to ask questions and vent.
  • Paint a picture of the new structure and the overall benefits that will result. Show how the reconfigured organization will be positioned to thrive under prevailing market conditions.

Communication Tips: Think about your layoff communication to staff. Meet with key mid-level leaders the day before the announcement, and with toolkits and talking points to help them learn what to say to employees after a layoff. Work with HR to prepare resource kits for those directly affected, to help people find a way forward.

3. AFTER: Care for the Survivors

A key stakeholder group often overlooked are those who survived the reduction in force. It’s critical to give the same level of attention to communicating layoffs to remaining employees. To avoid a dramatic loss of productivity, consider these tips to help people transition and recover.

  • Include “survivors” as a key constituency in your communication plan and anticipate their needs.
  • Do your homework — understand as best you can the impact on those remaining after the restructuring. How will the work be impacted? Will there be knowledge and process gaps? Whose responsibility is it to support the transition and new workflows?
  • Address emotional needs. Survivor’s guilt is real, and while their loss may be less than those who have been terminated, they are still likely to need support.
  • Acknowledge that this is a time of transition, and package resources such as employee assistance plan (EAP) sessions and ways to contribute to relief funds that help displaced workers.
  • Create opportunities for one-on-one sessions to check in on remaining employees and see how they’re doing during the transition.

Communication Tips: Create two-way communication channels including virtual or in-person town hall sessions, to help people process the event. They need to understand how their work lives may be changing, or not changing, and they may have constructive feedback.

The Stakes Are High

They say the true test of a person is how they behave in a crisis. The same is true for organizations. Sure, it’s easy to be “people first” when economic times are good. But how your company behaves before, during and after a layoff is how it will be remembered.