What you can learn from Wayfair’s layoff communications

Wayfair cut jobs shortly after the CEO told employees to work harder. Here’s what stuck out.

How Wayfair has handled layoffs

Home goods retailer Wayfair laid off 1,650 employees last week, amounting to 13% of the organization’s workforce. CEO Niraj Shah said the cuts were needed given the post-pandemic economic reality the retail company faces, and that “having too many great people is worse than having too few,” reports RetailDive.

But these job cuts and even the comments from Shah merit a closer interpretation when considering his note to employees last month, telling them they needed to work harder and put in longer hours.

“Working long hours, being responsive, blending work and life, is not anything to shy away from,” he said, according to CNN. “There is not a lot of history of laziness being rewarded with success.”

Beyond the inconsistent reasoning and duplicity between Shah’s comments, the messages also highlight the importance of harmonious alignment and collaboration between different comms teams.

Let’s take a look at how comms pros can align internal best practices to avoid something like this in the future.

Executive message coaching for internal audiences

Delivering consistent executive change comms requires having your executives not only media trained for talking to external audiences, but coached by the comms team on how to properly engage internal audiences, too.

Beyond the baseline lack of empathy that employees expect from leaders in today’s workplace, this also shows a high likelihood of insufficient practice on Shah’s part. That’s not just his responsibility — it’s on the executive communications team, the employee communications and the PR team to align and ensure that the organization’s leaders have the guardrails they need to communicate effectively. Working on tone and message alignment with an internal coach would highlight leadership communications best practices such as aligning tone with the audience, demonstrating empathy with the employee experience, and general consistency of narrative.

In the weeks following these less-than-stellar comments, it’s unclear whether anyone worked with Shah to sit down and go over tips for consistent engagement and alignment of message As of this writing, Wayfair has not responded to Ragan’s request for comment.

Comms pros need to make sure they work with their leaders on delivering consistent language across multiple stakeholder sets—minimizing the likelihood of tonal shifts that require damage control after the fact. When your corporate comms and employee comms aren’t playing the same tune, the scene is set for complications and it’s time to find out why.

Combatting tone deafness

There’s a right and wrong way to handle layoffs, and while on the surface, the news that Wayfair’s affected employees will be offered severance packages combined with Shah’s newly compassionate tone toward his employees could offer a correction in tone and message.

Consider the people left behind at Wayfair after this news. Are they going to want to rally their efforts for leadership that calls them lazy in a story that’s been leaked to the media? There’s a good chance they won’t. What might have seemed like an offhand comment in an internal meeting can have lasting impacts. It’s possible that prospective employees won’t consider Wayfair as a top choice for their careers. A line that was likely intended as a motivator could become a culture-killer, all because of a lack of proper comms protocol and preparation.

This is why a vetting process for messages (or any time of pronouncement from leadership) is so necessary — keeping things consistent. Employee comms should ensure that clear, empathetic messaging reaches employees during job cuts, and corporate comms should ensure stakeholders that operations are still stable, while leadership unites these efforts. But all three of these functions need to work hand-in-hand for maximum effectiveness. If one goes off the script (which leadership seemingly did in Wayfair’s case with the CEO comments), reputation and business prospects are at risk.

Where to start when so many executives seem to go rogue and not even work with comms teams? Working proactively with your executives to develop a sound tone and cadence for posting on social media is one way, as it can train them to develop their independent voice in a way that aligns with the mission, vision and values of your brand. Big things that this can help them refine include:

  • Articulating the company’s mission, vision and values in social posts featuring leadership.
  • Humanizing the brand behind the organization.
  • Showcasing company culture.
  • Recognizing company successes.
  • Responding to crises with a people-first approach.

When working with executives on aligning messages, communicators should consider who they want the executive to reach and what they want the executive to talk about first and foremost. But it’s nearly as important to humanize the executive that’s communicating.

This is achieved by molding the communication style to the personality of the leader so it seems natural, and rounding out aspects of the leader’s personality to make them more relatable to the audience. This can include sharing anecdotes about their family or personal lives that might resonate with audiences. The more leaders can relate to who their communicating with, the more likely the message is to resonate.

Addressing leaks

By taking proactive measures to engage employees and gauge sentiment early on, you can also prevent leaks from happening in the first place. Former Fleishman Hilliard vice president of CX Elizabeth Solomon shared some great tactics on how to prevent and address leaks in an organization.

At their core, leaks happen when an employee is discontented. This is especially true when employees feel like they don’t have a voice to speak up about their concerns. Instead of going to an internal source, they bypass them for the media because they feel they aren’t listened to. HR and comms pros should seek to empower employees to speak their minds and ask questions, as this can help root out one of the main causes behind leaks in the first place.

Organizations should also put infrastructure in place to prevent leaks. This can include putting a monitoring strategy in place for potential leaks and getting ahead of planned events (like layoffs) in which leaks might occur. Doing so can allow teams to determine where they’re agile enough to detect leaks and where they might need some help.

The process around preventing and defining leak parameters can’t just fall on legal. It should instead be a collaborative effort with proactive parameters and established consequences that are clear to all.

Proper comms is an intricate balancing act — particularly during trying times like a layoff. Comms pros need to be sure that all teams are aligned properly, and that employee sentiment is gauged, to ensure everything goes as well as possible during a tough situation.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.


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