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Zuckerberg and Musk: How to—and Not to– Deliver Bad News

It is said that within every crisis lies opportunity.  Making the difficult choice to conduct a large layoff is a likely one for many executives. But delivering this news need not become a reputation crisis for the company.

Much has already been written about how Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner and CEO, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook parent Meta, each conducted recent layoffs.  The way each approached sharing the news offers lessons on how to deliver—and not deliver—bad news to employees. I am also reminded of one of my own experiences with this tough task. Some pointers:

  1. Have a balance in your trust bank.  Given his freewheeling communication style, Twitter employees had been bracing for the worst when Musk took the helm.  But rather than begin his tenure with, say, an all-hands meeting to talk about his vision for Twitter’s future, he jumped right into an action that could have, but utterly failed to begin to make deposits in his trust bank for the employees who remain. 
  2. Develop a communication plan. I once joined a company in Chapter 11 that had recently conducted a large layoff poorly (The CEO was noticeably absent that day, and as employees walked out, a large bronze statue was being delivered. Bad optics=erosion of trust.). In my first week on the job, I was tasked with preparing for another large layoff. My goal: deliver a communications plan and train managers how to use it. The focus was on honesty, empathy, respect and dignity, not only for those losing their jobs, but for the survivors who had to absorb the work. We also took steps to assure there were no mixed messages (i.e., no expensive art being delivered. Ever again).
  3. Develop a tight timeline to manage network access. Don’t disconnect employees from systems until the news is being delivered.  Being shut out of the network is not a recommended tactic to deliver the news that they are unemployed.
  4. Prepare managers to deliver the news. Bring them together to walk through the communication plan and tools ahead of time and gather feedback that can help improve it. Conduct a debriefing following the day’s actions to discuss what worked and what could be improved upon.
  5. Own the decision. Musk failed to communicate even the most basic information meaningfully. By meaningful, I mean in more than 280 characters and directly to impacted employees. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, communicated with empathy and directly to employees the reasons for the actions being taken. He said, “I want to take accountability for these decisions and for how we got here. I know this is tough for everyone, and I’m especially sorry to those impacted.”

There are many more lessons that we can take from these recent events, and others have already written about them. But the most important in my opinion are the commonsense ones. Be human. Be honest. Act with integrity. In so doing, even bad news can lead to a better future.

Deb Hileman, SCMP

Deb Hileman, SCMP

President and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management