Communicating bad news to your team? Don’t use Stephen Elop’s style as your guide

Elop of Microsoft. His use of gobbledygook to lay off thousands has made him a laughingstock.

Elop of Microsoft. His use of gobbledygook to lay off thousands has made him a laughingstock.

Stephen who? You may ask. Well, he’s the Microsoft Vice President in charge of the company’s devices unit who recently sent the troops a memorandum announcing that 12,500 people would be laid off over the next year (18,000 are being laid off companywide). And, wow, did it generate a lot of criticism. Why? Because of instead of addressing it head on he used corporate gobbledygook to get the point across (see the article in New York magazine critiquing his memo. I think you’ll enjoy it.) To me, it reads like a memorandum written by a committee of HR folks, corporate lawyers, and PR executives. In other words, it’s a lousy memorandum because it seems he was so concerned about being legally “correct” he fails to be genuine.

Here are a few examples. First, he begins the memo with “Hello there.” That’s an odd sounding beginning for almost any memo one would send to thousands of people especially ones who are going to be laid off. This sounds like you’re just greeting someone you happened to run into while walking down the street.

He writes about helping the consumer “do more” and creating products that “showcases the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences.” Sounds like marketing flyer speak to me. What does this have to do with my being laid off? And, get this, he writes “Our device strategy….must be accomplished with an appropriate financial envelope.” (emphasis added) Envelope? What has the world of corporate communications come to? No one who is getting laid off cares about their company’s financial envelope. Heck, they don’t even know what that is. Look, I worked for the U.S. Government for 17 years and I’ve seen gobbledygook, but this really takes the cake.

Finally, he doesn’t even get to the fact that so many people are going to be laid off until the 11th paragraph in his missive. This is the main point of the memo! And, he employs the passive way of describing who’s getting the ax by stating “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory…employees.” Just come out and say it Steve!

The more direct way of stating this news is: “This means that 12,500 factory employees will be laid off.” As you can expect, he throws the “right sizing” term in there too. All good gobbledygook corporate memos laying people off must include that term! I’m just surprised he didn’t use “redundant” too seeing how he’s from Europe and they love that term over there.

People deserve better than this from their employer. They deserve direct, no nonsense, no corporate BS language when they are being told their services are no longer required.

So, the next time you have to communicate bad news to your team, your sponsor, your portfolio committee, or steering group, use plain and simple language that people will immediately understand.

Don’t write meaningless preambles and include extraneous information designed to cloak your intentions or reality. In the end, people will immediately see through your intent to obfuscate and sugarcoat, deem you a phony or a drone, and place less credibility in your communications in the future.  And, you can be sure, they won’t be happy.

If you didn’t read the New York article I understand. Perhaps you just don’t have the time. But you should see how they ended it. Here’s their view of what many people thought of the Elop memo. I’m sure there are thousands more who feel exactly the same way and they all work for Microsoft.




Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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