What the Microsoft Fail Can Teach Healthcare Leaders

Workforce reduction, downsizing, streamlining, or as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella explained in a now-notorious memo to employees last week "the first step to building the right organization for our ambitions is to realign our workforce," all describe what most Americans would call, simply and accurately, a layoff. Another accurate description: A mass firing.

Over and over again (yes, you, Citigroup, and you, Best Buy), CEOs (and no doubt their HR and communications advisors) find the need to obfuscate what is clear to most workers receiving the email: some of your colleagues, and maybe even you, are going to get fired. They can't bring themselves to be straightforward, and they end up looking foolish in the process.

Most of the Microsoft layoffs will affect legacy Nokia employees, which Microsoft acquired last year. Perhaps Stephen Elop, former CEO of Nokia and now an executive at Microsoft, did better? Try again. Here's how he announced the layoffs to his division:

"It is particularly important to recognize that the role of phones within Microsoft is different than it was within Nokia. Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope. Therefore, we plan to make some changes."  


Microsoft and Nokia have a largely professional workforce, and still that paragraph probably left most of their heads spinning.

How do organizations with a less skilled workforce 'obfuscate' a mass firing?

The good ones don't.

Just say it
People feel better when they have clear, transparent information. Even if it's bad it feels better than uncertainty.

Layoffs often are a last resort for struggling organization as they fight to regain a position of strength. Many of them are necessary, and without them, could mean even more job losses down the line. Many laid off workers will find other work, but some will not. As many laid off workers, especially those older in age, can attest, often a layoff can mean never returning to an income you've been accustomed to or a even a premature end to a career.

Layoffs also create a very precarious situation for the organization and the employees left behind. If not handled as prudently as possible, layoffs can leave an organization even worse off — with remaining employees who are at the best disappointed or, worse, disengaged and distrusting.

Healthcare is an industry wracked with layoffs. We've covered 91 separate layoff 'incidents' at hospitals and health systems this year alone.

I'm sure no layoff decision on that list came easy to the executives making them. Yet, they deemed them necessary.

In an industry with severe reimbursement pressure that, in many markets, has far more supply than demand, layoffs are no longer a surprise.

Even the strongest organizations in our industry have had to lay off workers to remain in the black.

So, while layoffs in healthcare aren't inevitable, they are likely to continue.

If your organization deems one necessary, what is the best approach?

Becker's Editor Heather Punke provided some guidance last year in her article, "Hospital Layoffs on the Rise: 4 Best Practices for Hospitals Facing the Last Resort."

Healthcare public affairs firm Jarrad Phillips Cate & Hancock, which specializes in communicating during these sort of crisis situations, outlines five best practices:

  • Explain the context.
  • Tell your employees and physicians first.
  • Focus your talking points on your patient care mission.
  • Acknowledge the tough decision, but also define the benefits.
  • Be a leader in the need to think – and act – differently

Had Microsoft followed these, it'd still be in the headlines, but maybe not the butt of the joke.

Take this as a lesson you can learn from others, and if faced with a layoff, communicate early and clearly, even if it's uncomfortable being so straightforward. It's the only chance you have of maintaining employees' respect.

Have you had to announce a layoff? What was your experience? Share your thoughts with Editor Lindsey Dunn (ldunn@beckershealthcare.com) for possible publication. 

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