Letting people go in bunches varies from bad to dreadful. You can’t make it right with clear language, but you can certainly make it worse. On the heels of Satya Nadella’s excellent mission statement email, he had to dump 7,800 staff, mostly because of Steve Ballmer’s ill-conceived decision to acquire Nokia’s phone business. I’d give Nadella’s layoff announcement a B-minus — he does pretty well, but falls into typical CEO traps as he delivers the bad news.
Delivering bad news is “deeply” problematic
Any time you need to communicate bad news there’s the temptation to equivocate, write in the passive, and evade responsibility. The words “deep” or “deeply,” for example, communicate commitment without any actual promise. That’s why they appear three times in Nadella’s layoff email:
In all we do, we will take a long-term view and build deep technical capability that allows us to innovate in the future.
I don’t take changes in plans like these lightly, given that they affect the lives of people who have made an impact at Microsoft. We are deeply committed to helping our team members through these transitions.
I deeply appreciate all of the ideas and hard work of everyone involved in these businesses, and I want to reiterate my commitment to helping each individual impacted.
Nadella lapses into the language of a victim
There are two key objectives for this email — describe how the changes fit into the strategy and announce the layoffs clearly but sensitively. Passive language (but not actual passive voice) distances Nadella from responsibility for both:
With that context, I want to update you on decisions impacting our phone business and share more on last week’s mapping and display advertising announcements.
We anticipate that these changes, in addition to other headcount alignment changes, will result in the reduction of up to 7,800 positions globally, primarily in our phone business. We expect that the reductions will take place over the next several months.
“Impacting,” “expect,” and “reductions” are words that set off my bullshit detectors. They communicate that this is something that’s just happening to Microsoft, rather than something the company is doing. A more honest CEO would own up to putting 7,800 humans out of a job as a result of a change in strategy, instead of “expecting” that “reductions” will take place in “positions.”
Getting out of the phone business — sort of
Here’s Nadella’s two-step regarding the phone business:
I am committed to our first-party devices including phones. However, we need to focus our phone efforts in the near term while driving reinvention. We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem that includes our first-party device family.
Today, we announced a fundamental restructuring of our phone business. As a result, the company will take an impairment charge of approximately $7.6 billion . . .
He doesn’t sound so committed to making phones when you read about “a vibrant Windows ecosystem.”
Translation into plain, brutal, English
Here’s how a more straightforward CEO would put it if his PR staff, lawyers, and investment advisors would let him tell the full truth.
We made a mistake buying a phone company. We need to play in the phone business, but making handsets turns out to be a lot less important. It was a costly mistake, and as a result I’m going to have let 7,800 of you go. Oops! We’ve got a great severance package for these workers (it’s going to cost us $7.6 billion). As for those of you still here, I need your help to turn around this mess I inherited, so shake your colleagues’ hands on the way out the door and let’s get to work.