Blog Culture

A Better Way to Fire People

person sitting and looking out a window

Josh Oakhurst

  • Reading Time  Min Read
  • Publish Date October 7, 2014

Most of your colleagues suck at email because most of your colleagues suck at writing. Electronic, American business communication is full of fluff, superficiality, and trite nothingness. GET TO THE POINT.

Hilariously bad are the blog posts and emails tech firms publish as means to announce mass layoffs. Last week, Rovio just let go 130 people in a blame-skirting disaster. In August, Microsoft used twin announcements disguised as morale boosters to lay off the biggest-ever percentage of their workforce (18,000 jobs).

As a means to convey better written communication ideals for your org, we’re going to teach both Rovio and Clippy Sr. a better way to fire people. Here goes.

If Firing People / Telling A Colleague Important News:

Don’t Bury the Lead

This is an old timey journalist’s saying. The reader just cracked open your paper, Sport. No time to waste, put the meat of that sucker up front. Business writing is not creative writing. No need for exposition, that comes later.

Bad Communication Example, Rovio

Announcing a mass firing, Rovio’s CEO took 178 words to get there. 50% of the announcement was wasted before we get to “employee reductions.”

Bad Communication Example, Microsoft

In an email to the company, Microsoft’s EVP of Devices and Services Stephen Elop made potential pink-slippers parse out 1,100 (!) jargony-words just to find out if they had been canned.

Good Example, Try This Instead

(Paragraph One)
With regret, [MY COMPANY HERE] will be laying off [#] of workers beginning on [DATE]. Employees will [ANNOUNCE SOME SORT OF CONDOLENCES/THEORETICAL IDEA-OF-NOT-DETAILS-OF SEVERANCE PACKAGE] and will be also personally missed by each of their respective departments and colleagues.

(All Other Paragraphs)

Mind the Title

Points off for creativity. Do you need your neighbor Joe to watch your dog over the weekend? Title: Avail to Watch Fido Sat & Sun? Sending Dan in HR your expense report? Title: [MY NAME] Expenses, Reimbursable [MONTH]. Firing a whole bunch of newly-sad people you failed to use effectively? Don’t get cute. Most companies lose PR/humanity/marketing clout by trying to make the firing about the org rather than the people.

Bad Title Example, Rovio

Here’s a title that could mean anything; “Toward a Simplified Organization.” Oh, we’re consolidating offices? Getting the printer fixed? Using less characters in email by only typing “PLZ” instead of “please”?

Bad Title Example, Microsoft

In the foreshadowing announcement before the announcement, CEO Satya Nadella titled his 3,700 (!!) word screed “Starting FY15 – Bold Ambition & Our Core. [Vomits.] Bonus vomit, Nadella waits until paragraph 35 (!!!) to even careen off of “simplification,” “fluidity of information,” “culture changes,” “leaner business processes,” and “taking actions to flatten the organization” [death knell]. Say what you mean, man.

Good Title, Try This Instead

How about, “Details of Employee Cuts to Improve Profitability”? Just kidding, that’s way too honest. Since we have to couch it somewhat, let’s try something that spells out our intentions but doesn’t make the reader (/potential victim) even more scared to scan further. Something like, “[#]% of Workforce Cuts Starting [SAY WHEN]: Info, Rational, & Next Steps” should do the trick.

Spell Out Any Required Response

By simultaneously targeting employees, competitors, the press, and Wall Street, publicly traded tech firms laying off people are trying to do too much in one email or blog post. As such, even in a firing announcement, it’s hard to understand what next steps are required or should be expected. Each of those audience members will have a different and immediate mandate (employee: update LinkedIn / investor: buy more stock).

Still, when you write an email to a colleague/department/entire city, make sure everyone knows a.) the point of the email, and b.) the requested follow-up BUT IN THAT OPPOSITE ORDER.

In a business email, put the needed action before the request.

Next time you’re sending out a communique, your simplified order (not easier for you to write, but better to be understood) should actually be WHAT I NEED FROM YOU, then WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW. Consider the following examples:


Title: “Break Room”
Tom, did you know that mold is growing in the fridge? Wow, I like fungi, but not fun-gross, AMIRITE? I’m right. I use the fridge too, and I checked all my spaghetti containers. There was some 1/2 eaten yogurt in the back, have you seen it?

Anyway, we probably shouldn’t have mold in the fridge. Can you just, like, eat penicillin? Or do you need to snort the spores? Well, some of us agree moldy office fridges are unseemly.



Title: “Last Warning Before Fridge is Nuked”
Tom, if you have anything in the fridge, it needs to leave by EOD. At 5:00pm, Jim from accounting is busting out his homemade flamethrower. Precious tupperware that gets eaten by fire will not be replaced.

It’s unseemly when the fridge gets moldy, so mind your leftovers. Especially 1/2 eaten yogurt containers.

The above poor-email-ender-masquerading-as-a-request comes from my own organization. Even at SDW, people have a bad habit of ending long internal scribes with “Thoughts?” This trend started with one person, and it spread to most email writers (i.e. everyone) because it’s easy.

Better business communication can be easy, just don’t be lazy. Instead, follow the three simple steps above. Remember, you’re not telling a story, and no one wants to guess at your intentions or what’s required of them.

When firing employees (hopefully not) and especially in day-to-day activities (being the person who simplifies, rather than complicates), state your needs clearly, put the point of the need right up front, and provide a common sense title.