Last week, Microsoft executive and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop sent an 1,111 word email to Microsoft employees explaining why the company was initiating the largest layoff in the company’s history. Elop’s email went viral with shocking speed as pundits, employees and industry analysts weighed in and piled on about the impact of the move. When I read the email, I was struck with how long it was, and why so many people took the time to comment on its poor quality. In it, Mr. Elop shared no words of empathy, regret, remorse, sympathy, concern or grace. None.
If you haven’t read it or don’t want to, the email is filled with more Dilbert double-speak than anyone but the most caffeinated MBA student could track. And Mr. Elop appears to lack understanding of how to connect with his audience on anything other than technology and repurposed sound bites of Microsoft strategy. However, I think finding fault with his actions misses a bigger, perhaps more important point: how could a company-wide email be so poorly developed given the seismic nature of its message?
I worked in senior leadership for a publicly traded company and even took the lead on several of our strategic public announcements. The company was a minuscule David compared to Microsoft’s Goliath, yet every word, phrase and sentence was scrubbed and carefully reviewed by an editorial team of really smart people across the company. In the case of the email in question, surely a team of HR professionals evaluated it? And it’s not a stretch to assume Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, and the person who actually announced the layoffs had a chance to preview the email. Yet, it went out as-is: impersonal, clinical, and full of jargon.
Is it really possible that this email’s transmission was an oversight? These are really smart people, and the sheer number of them who had to have signed off on the email without catching its lack of spirit or heart seems implausible.
I was curious if perhaps I had missed something in my initial reading of the email. Perhaps scattered amongst the references to “lighting-up” Microsoft’s devise strategy or plans “to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments” were imbedded words of concern. To check, I ran some word counts on the document, revealing the following:
- 0 – References to “empathy”, “regret”, “disappointment”, “concern”, or references to even the smallest moral, existential or strategic dilemma.
- 31 – references or synonyms for the words “plans”, “winning”, “building” or “shifting.”
- 0 – references or synonyms for the words “consider”, “understand”, “sensitive”, “aware” or “disappoint.”
- 35 – references or synonyms to the words “product”, “alignment” and “focus.”
To be fair, the word “impact” was used once, in this context: “We expect these changes to have an impact to our team structure”. Interestingly, “team” was used 18 times, but “relationship”, “friends”, “colleagues” or any of their synonyms were never mentioned. In fact, the email was written in third person; the word “I” was never used, nor was “you” or “me,” but there were 40 uses of the word “we”. In terms of who, exactly, made the layoff decision, we may never know. The word “accountable” was never used but “responsible” is used twice, in the context of business units who will own key functions of the newly “right-sized” business.
Going with the “these are smart people who did not overlook the need to craft a more empathetic, genuine layoff email” thesis, two options are at the top of my list:
- Mr. Elop and his staff think explaining the business case for the layoffs will give those being laid off comfort, as if knowing all the data will make it easier for them to find a new job and give them reassurance through the uncertainty and inconvenience.
- They are managing so much complexity and abstraction that they lost sight or memory of the fact that in a business run by and for people, the most basic human need is survival, followed by connection.
To wit, I offer the following:
Our integration with Nokia gave us great leverage in the device market offset with an unprecedented increase in headcount that, given our new business strategy, is unsustainable. A team of your senior leaders with me principally among them has been working for months on options to navigate around this fact with as little disruption and displacement to our workforce as possible. I regret to say we were unsuccessful in generating a plan to avoid this; over the next six months, we are going to have to lay off approximately 18,000 Microsoft employees.
I cannot express how difficult this decision has been for me, and for everyone involved in it. Our people—each of you—are a critical component of our success strategy. While I am confident that this layoff is absolutely necessary, we know it will result in the corporation losing unprecedented numbers of talented, committed employees, collaborators, colleagues and friends.
We are working on a strategy to provide as soft a landing as possible for those who will be impacted most directly with the layoff. As our plans emerge, we—and by “we” I mean me and our entire leadership team—will do our best to keep you appraised of our progress not only in orchestrating as smooth a downsizing as possible, but also to report on how the sacrifice of those who will be impacted is benefitting the future of the company.
(239 words vs. 1,111)