It’s the wild, wild west, my friends. Especially when it comes to TikTok. It’s so great—and it also can create massive havoc for organizations. 

One of my favorite things right now is a high school teacher who posts videos about conversations with her students. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend the one where she talks about water polo and how the entire class said they’ve played water polo…only to discover they meant Marco Polo.

Watch it. It’s worth the diversion.

And then there are the videos where people are posting recordings of the meetings where they are fired (or laid off) or relaying stories about how their work requests resulted in being fired.

And it’s U-G-L-Y.

No longer are those conversations private, nor are they employer-driven. If the employer gets it wrong, the entire world is going to know about it. And honestly? Deservedly so. We have to do better. Gone are the days of corporate speak and emotionless conversation. 

Every Org Will Face a Crisis

It used to be that crises were few and far between. Unless the CEO went on a bender and vandalized a hotel room, or there was a natural disaster or a plant explosion, most companies went their entire lives without a crisis.

Today, though? Totally different story. 

Not only does the internet, and social media specifically, provide the opportunity for customers to have their say, it has afforded the same for employees. And employees are fed up. 

It’s more than taking screenshots of text conversations. Today, anyone can record any conversation and post it for the world to see and hear. 

CloudFlare Got It Completely Wrong

This is exactly what happened when CloudFlare did a round of layoffs.

Bethany Pietsch got her camera all ready to roll just before she logged onto video chat with HR. She knew what was coming because her co-workers got random 15-minute meeting invites—and then her work BFF had a meeting 30 minutes before Bethany and she was laid off. She says in the video she had about 10 minutes to compose herself, which is when she also decided to record it. 

The video is nine minutes long, and it’s cringe-worthy. If you want to see how to avoid layoffs, I recommend watching it. Or if you just like a good trainwreck, it’s worth it.

She decided right before everyone logged on that she was going to stand up for herself because, in her words, she didn’t have anything left to lose (which, in and of itself, is telling). Then HR logs in, and one of the guys introduces himself! She’s literally never met this person and he’s about to lay her off. Seems vaguely familiar to a movie I once saw with George Clooney and Anna Kendrick. So 2009!

One of my favorite lines of the entire video is, “If you can’t give me a reason that I am being let go, am I being let go for no reason? Is that what you’re saying?” And the response from HR was, “I can’t give you the reason on this call, but I’m happy to follow-up with you separately to give you the data that was calibrated.”

What the heck does that even mean? What’s worse is they continued to repeat that message over and over again. “It won’t change the outcome of this meeting, but I’m happy to circle back later to answer your questions.”

Meaningless Corporate Jargon

Friends, this is not how you let someone go—if they’re being fired for cause, being laid off, or myriad other reasons. It’s not how you do it. I’m not an HR professional, so I’ll leave the HR advice to them, but I am a communications professional and I own a business. I know what you can and cannot say in meetings like these and I know how you can be an empathetic human being who makes it easy for someone to hear this kind of news—as easy as it can be.

This ain’t it. First off, where was her manager? You should never let people go without their direct supervisor in the meeting. Secondly, the amount of corporate jargon is astonishing. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by it, but it’s bad.

“Give you the data that was calibrated.” “Circle back later.”

It’s Up to Us to Raise Our Hands to Help

This stuff is meaningless. 

It would have been refreshing if the HR manager had said, “You know what, Brittany? You’re right. You haven’t been in the job long enough to be let go for poor performance and it was unfair for us to start the conversation that way. What I am allowed to tell you is that we’ve had to make some hard decisions and, unfortunately, you and your peers are part of a company-wide layoff. I’m really sorry.”

That way, she doesn’t think she’s been letting go for poor performance and she understands that this is a financial decision that has nothing to do with her. It still sucks, but at least she is given a reason for being let go.

Communicators, it’s up to you to go to HR and say, “I can help you with this.” And then work with them on messaging for both the actual news and for all of the questions that will come up. You will need to get approval from legal on what you can and cannot say, but if you stay within those guardrails, you can help them be empathetic while delivering the bad news.

Two Videos Don’t Make a Right

At the same time that CloudFlare was laying off its employees, Kyte Baby was under scrutiny of their own. Not because of layoffs, but because an employee requested to work from home while her newborn was in the NICU—and was denied.

Kyte Baby worker Marissa Hughes and her partner adopted a baby boy who had been born after only 22 weeks of gestation. He was born barely over a pound at birth and, as you can imagine, was born with various health concerns. 

When Hughes requested to work remotely while staying with her baby at the NICU, the company fired her. She asked for time off from her in-person job as a studio coordinator, and the brand agreed to give her two weeks of paid leave. That was not enough time, as her newborn would still be in the NICU after the two-week leave (which, BTW, they called maternity leave), so she asked if she could work remotely after those two weeks.

The company responded to her request by denying her the extra time off and terminating her job if she was not able to work in person after her leave.

She told that, “It was never my intention to quit. I was willing to work from the NICU. This is a slap in the face … my child is fighting for his life.

To make matters worse, the Kyte Baby CEO posted a scripted apology video to TikTok that came across as disingenuous and uncaring. After people eviscerated her on the social network, she posted a second video that was unscripted and told the truth of what happened. Essentially she didn’t believe Hughes could do her job remotely and denied the request. To her credit, she did take responsibility for the decision and says it was 100% the wrong one to make, but the damage was already done.

The Three-Pronged Pillar

Sigh. Why is this so hard? 

Let’s set aside their ridiculous parental leave policy and inability to see the forest for the trees and talk about the communication lessons in both of these examples. 

Transparency, authenticity, honesty. Those are the three pillars. Now I know most of us will have ot work with the legal team before any of these conversations can be done, and I know that, with a candid conversation with general counsel, you can typically get what you need to protect brand reputation. 

Start there.

Treat It Like Crisis Training

Then schedule meetings with the people who will be delivering the employee news. In those meetings, have them practice what they are going to say, just like you would do in media training. Throw hard scenarios at them—you can use Brittany Pietsch as an example here. See if they crumble or if they stay empathetic and compassionate. Practice until it’s the latter every time.

Just like you would do in crisis training, consider every situation they might encounter and help them figure out what to say for each scenario. 

The goal is to help them empathize with the human being on the other side of the conversation. Yes, they should understand that it could be recorded and posted online, but that’s not why you are doing this. You’re doing it because, “I’ll circle back later to give you the data that was calibrated” is not an appropriate answer when someone asks why they are being let go.

Your Confidence Boost

Then, when shit hits the fan and the CEO has to step in to apologize for whatever reason (but most likely because you were not consulted before any conversation was had), for the love of Thor (as my small one always says), please do not script it for them or let them read a script while they are recording.

Just like you’ll do with HR and the managers, make the CEO practice. In some cases, you won’t have a ton of time, but you can absolutely have them practice five to seven times. Force this. It will have far better results than a half-apology like the CloudFlare CEO released, or having to post two videos in one day, like the Kyte Baby CEO.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but this is important. Too often, comms isn’t consulted, but expected to clean up the mess (hence why the term PR crisis exists). This is your confidence boost not to allow that to happen. Ever.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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