A Literary Critique Of Layoff Memos

With so many layoffs going down today, it's a good time to take a look at how, exactly, a layoff memo should be written. Actually, any time you're critiquing a flood of layoff memos is by definition a bad time. But we'll disregard that for the moment. People need to be let down in the proper way, lest they get justifiably angry enough to put managers up against the wall. After the jump, we analyze five elements of today's memos that illustrate everything you corporate flacks need to know about firing people like us:

1. Be honest: The worst thing a layoff can be is full of shit. At least have the common courtesy to tell the truth. From MTV's memo today:

We all know there's a fundamental restructuring of our entire economy going on, and it extends beyond our borders. This is not just about MTVN, Viacom or even sister media companies – it's happening in every industry, all over the world. This doesn't make it easier to say goodbye to people we love and respect, but it is the hard truth. In these tough times, we are responsible for sustaining and reinventing our company as thoughtfully as we can. The changes we're making today are necessary, difficult, and the responsible way for us to move forward.

This is true, straightforward, and not patronizing.

2. But not too honest: Perfect honesty demands admitting that the people you laid off are the ones you consider disposable. Don't do that. You must, must fellate your departing employees to the extent possible without seeming absolutely fake. Elsewhere in that MTV memo:

Everyone here contributes to MTVN and Viacom every single day and night without exception. We hate to see dedicated friends and co-workers leave us, and we say goodbye with care, gratitude, support and respect.

The first sentence is patently false for any large organization. The second sentence may or may not be true. Still, it's a nice thought.

3. Remember your audience: Your audience here—your most important audience—is people who are being laid off. Employees with safe jobs, the media, and the general public will all get hold of these memos and read them, but really, you have to cater to the dead here. From Viacom's memo today:

Viacom's long-term health will depend on our shared commitment to adapt, to innovate and to make difficult choices. To compete and thrive, we need to create an organization and a cost structure that are in step with the evolving economic environment.

Do you know how much newly laid-off employees care about Viacom's long-term health? Not much. They just got laid off. Keep the focus on the people.

4. Look like you put some thought into it: Being cold and perfunctory is almost as bad as being a see-through fake. Sure, executives and their flacks would rather be sniffing blow in a golf cart than approving layoff memos. But you people still have jobs, so suck it up and try to say something non-robotic. Universal Pictures' memo today is only four short paragraphs, the last three of which say this:

While much has been accomplished to find necessary savings, we regret that we must also reduce headcount by around 3%. No company likes to have to make these kinds of decisions, and certainly we are no exception. We want to assure you that everyone has done their best to keep job cuts to an absolute minimum.

The process of communicating with those individuals whose positions are affected has begun today and will continue for the next few days.

We appreciate the effort from everyone who has participated in this difficult process.

Yada yada. The tone is indistinguishable from an internal memo announcing that staplers must be signed out of the supply closet from now on. Shed a tear or two, fuckers.

5. Every time you use corporate doubletalk, an angel dies: Actual human sentences—try them! When ushering hundreds of people out the door, avoid standard management-speak, like this from Paramount's memo today:

Without question, the changes we implement today required us to make difficult choices. We take these steps after a careful analysis of our overall business and as part of a broader strategy to overcome the challenges of this unusual time in the market and to chart a successful course for the future.

As we look ahead, we are encouraged by the strength of our slate, the quality of our creative partners, the innovation we see on the lot every day and the projects we have in development. These assets, coupled with your talent and hard work, I believe will enable us to remain strong over the long term.

With that, your newly unemployed workers may leverage their strategic capabilities to steal a lot of stuff on the way out. [Pic via]