You’ve heard by now how Better.com CEO Vishal Garg laid off 900 employees over Zoom this week, right before the holidays. The backlash was swift and fierce from the staff, stakeholders, and the public at large — rightfully so, with the media piling on. And it all came down to one element: Garg lacked empathy.
I recently took on a project with another company that needed to lay off a significant portion of its staff due to an acquisition. They retained my PR agency to help them navigate Better.com, and Garg is now experiencing: backlash from lack of sensitivity. Luckily, this client had the foresight to spend time before the layoffs thinking about how to convey this news to its team, ultimately helping us mitigate negativity.
Our advice then remains the same now: first and foremost, lead with empathy. So often, the C-suite may think with only its business brain on. Revenue down plus costs up equal staff reduction. And while that may be the dismal reality, if those in leadership forget the human aspect of layoffs, they’re going to have a much bigger problem than a fledgling business. They’ll have a PR problem and swiftly need to go into triage mode.
Why Garg and his team chose to conduct these layoffs so close to the holidays is a mystery. We only have a couple of weeks between now and Christmas. Even if the news were delivered on Monday, January 3rd, that would have been infinitely better in leading with empathy. Even if those laid off get decent severance packages, a blow like this so close to the holidays is sure to dampen anyone’s holidays, elevating negative feelings and causing a PR backlash.
When delivering bad news—though I understand with remote work that Zoom may seem like the best option—there are other ways to consider. My recommendation would have been to speak to teams in smaller groups. Of course, this would require much more time and effort on the part of Garg. But, smaller forums where perhaps there is a time for questions from the impacted staff would demonstrate that Garg cares for his team and wants their voices to be heard.
PR isn’t ER, but it does require putting yourself in the shoes of those you are impacting. Doing so helps you retain an image as a good businessman and a good human too. And with so much stress and uncertainty over the past two years, having a compassionate leader—even when it’s bad news—is what avoids a PR nightmare and lets you rest easier at night.
By Annie Pace Scranton