Sharing bad news with your people? You could do worse than following the Airbnb approach
Updated: May 11
You may have seen in the news this week that Airbnb co-founder and CEO, Brian Chesky announced the company would have to reduce its workforce by 25%. It’s never a great message for any employee to hear, not least when they are one of the unlucky ones clearing their desk.
However, the way with which Chesky crafted and delivered this important message was brilliant, and will go a long way in helping employees understand and back the decision. Furthermore, it will no doubt help ease the way for those who are leaving as they can understand why the move was necessary and that their work is valued.
And the proof is in the pudding. My LinkedIn feed is today packed with posts from people who’ve been laid off from Airbnb praising the company for the opportunity they've given them; their team for their expertise; and the management for its vision and leadership. They leave with pride for having worked for this organisaiton, and will take that, with their experiences and skills, into all future roles.
What can we all learn from Airbnb?
As the COVID-19 outbreak continues and our businesses need to adapt to new ways of working, markets and customer demands, many of us may find ourselves in the same position as Airbnb.
Here are some lessons we can learn from their approach to ensure our communications hit the right tone with employees who are both staying and leaving the organisation.
Tell your people first. Whether it’s good news or bad, share it with your people before you share it externally. In the event that you have to share it with the market first for legal reasons, make sure you have the employee communication ready to go out immediately afterwards. You don’t want your people to find out they are being made redundant from the news or social media - you need to own this message.
Be clear and get to the point quickly. There are few places where jargon is ok, and this is certainly not it. Be clear with what you are doing and spell out what it means for people. You don’t want to leave room for ambiguity in your message.
Explain ‘the why’. If you’ve got kids, you’ll know that every decision you make is immediately followed with a chorus of ‘but why?’. Employees are no different and want to know why you are making the decision and how it will benefit the company. Understanding how you reached the decision can help people come to terms with it, even if they don't like it.
Own it. Chesky talks about how ‘I arrived at the decision’. By doing so, he’s owning the decision for the company and not expecting other leaders to be responsible for the outcome. That’s leadership.
Paint a picture of the future. Those who are staying will want to know how things will look different. Are they expected to do the jobs of their former colleagues as well as their own, or will business processes and priorities actually change to reflect the future state? While Airbnb doesn’t have a crystal ball, Chesky explains how they’ve made some reasonable assumptions about the industry and how they will respond. This will give confidence to employees who are remaining and they will know what they are staying for.
Treating those leaving with respect. Leaving an organisation in these circumstances is often challenging. Like Airbnb, give your departing colleagues time to farewell their colleagues and celebrate what they have achieved during their time with you.
Be present. Delivering a message like this is only the beginning of a long communications process. As Chesky points out, there will be 1:1 sessions with leaders, town halls by location and all team Q&A meetings. It’s important your door remains wide open to anyone who wants to ask questions or share their views, and keep communicating with people until they’ve told you they’ve got it.
Be human. As a leader it hurts to make decisions like this. Demonstrating your empathy for the decision goes a long way, but using the words 'I'm sorry' means an awful lot more. Chesky's last paragraph of the letter to employees is heartfelt, honest and above all, human.