Write a Better Lay-Off Notice

Lay-Off Poster from Wikimedia CommonsNobody likes getting lay-off notices. And for sure nobody likes writing them, either. But if you've done your time in the newspaper business--or any other sector that's been buffeted by repeated contractions--you've gotten more than one of these missives.

Most are written by well-meaning people who wordsmith authenticity and feeling out of every word. Others are the always-tragic result of group think. I've been in the meetings where lay-off notices are discussed and reviewed, and I know a lot of the bad writing is the result of all of us feeling like crap about the situation and a little guilty that our names aren't on the "to" list. And, sure, sometimes the lawyers advise against certain words or concepts, which I understand even if I don't like.

But we can do better. We can use our writing talents to toe the legal line without making the notice sound like it was auto-generated by a robot. We can think about how we say "sorry" so the copy doesn't read like it deserves a #sorrynotsorry. That takes extra time--which is often short in this situation--and a lot of reading aloud. But it can be done.

An Real-World Example

This morning I got a note from a newspaper editor I've worked with for a decade and a half. This was the second time the contributor budget was slashed (the first was the Great Recession) and he was writing to tell me they wouldn't be able to engage me for the quarterly report I've been producing for them.

His message was concise--it was only 9 sentences--but not form letter-ish. I could tell he hated writing it, and I know he meant what he said:

Again, sorry for the sudden way this came down. And thanks, truly, for your very good and dedicated work over the years.

That graf isn't going to earn him a Pullitzer, but it is worthy of note. The sentence construction and paragraph structure create a sound and feel that are personal and true. The combined effect of concision and voice make me feel like "letting me down easy" without being pandered to.

You can't be in business long without having to let someone--or maybe many people--go. Practice infusing all your writing with more authenticity and voice so that when you have the unenviable task of letting people go in writing, you can do it well.

Your Action Steps for Delivering Bad News Better:

  1. Keep a file of great "bad news" announcements along with a few notes about what you liked about them. These examples provide helpful inspiration when you've got to produce. Learn how to use models more effectively.
  2. Identify adjectives that create the appropriate sound and feel for this kind of communique. Compassionate, regretful, professional, personal, etc. These guide the voice, word choice and sentence fluency of your writing.
  3. Practice delivering bad news in writing. I'm not a fan of creating a template for bad news notices, but I do advocate writing some when you don't have to. I learned this from my parents, who once suggested I write a few condolence notes after I struggled mightily to write my first. A few intentional reps writing about tough topics increases your muscle memory when you have to do it on demand.

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