Analysis: Grab CEO’s note on job cuts: Tear up your PR rulebook

Yesterday, ride-hailing firm Grab announced a 5% lay off to its workforce resulting in approximately 360 employees being cut. The announcement was made via a digital note written by CEO and co-founder Anthony Tan (pictured), which was then published on the company blog for employees, media and the members of the public to read.

Tan began by sharing that he had initially hoped he would not have to send a note like this, nor was the announcement one taken lightly and that the announcement leaves him with a heavy heart.

“We tried everything possible to avoid this but had to accept that the difficult cuts we are making today are required, because millions depend on us for a living in this new normal […] We have always hired with the best of intentions for Grabbers to grow together with us. We are truly sorry for what’s happening today. To those who are impacted, we owe you an explanation,” he added. The note then went ahead to outline the measures Grab put in place to support those impacted by the retrenchment. To read the full note, click here.

Tan’s words bore resemblance to the note put out by Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky on 5 May where on the company’s blog, Chesky outlined the state in which Airbnb’s financials were in and how it needed to evolve. Airbnb’s massive cuts saw nearly 25% of its workforce impacted globally. Nonetheless, Chesky delivery was applauded by PR professionals around the world for its empathy and honesty as it allowed the public a glimpse into the company’s financials and decision. Many deemed it the perfect playbook to leading during a crisis.

While Tan’s note did carry a resemblance to Chesky’s delivery, Deepa Balji, director of marketing communications at S4 Asia Pacific, said what companies need to always remember is to “stay human”. She added that while the press will do what it does, leaders and communications professionals need to block out the noise and stay true to outgoing employees with assistance they may need – be it emotionally or via job referrals.

If layoffs are imminent, leaders can also work with the communications and PR teams, along with the talent officers, to set up live-streaming of messages or large scale virtual town halls, to ensure a human element is not lost. She added:

Retrenchments can be visceral. Tear up the rulebook and lead with empathy right from the heart. Stay human.

"Anxiety will reign so keep having town halls or other ways to communicate to employees in times that we are in. In fact, employees want to hear more and more from their leaders in times we are in,” Balji added

Justin Then, MD of Lumos Hill+Knowlton Strategies, added that the message from Grab’s founder Tan comes across sincere and full of empathy. Like Balji, he seconded that "there is never a perfect way to express nor the right words to convey such news".

Being as honest as you possibly can and focusing on what you can and will do for your impacted staff is the best way to handle such situations, Then explained. “My advice would be to cast away your rulebook, and speak from your heart. Put yourself in the shoes of those impacted, and ask yourself how you wish to be communicated to,” he added.

Meanwhile, having managed communications for large corporations during a number of crises from the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, 2003 SARS, 2008 Global Economic Crisis and now COVID-19, Madhavi Tumkur, founder and director of Enterprise PR and Marketing, said authenticity and transparency should be integral to all organisations in the way they manage their communications, not only when a crisis strikes.

“The one thing that is inevitable during global recessions is redundancies. They are humbling to all companies regardless of their size and stage of growth. What is important is how a company manages their communication during such disruptive times,” she added.

“In the past, we have seen employees who lost their jobs walking out of the offices bearing placards saying: 'Just made redundant. Please hire me'. This time around, what has come from this crisis is transparency in communications as demonstrated by the likes of Airbnb and now Grab. CEOs Chesky and Tan have also laid an example by using open letters to communicate their empathy and regret,” she said, adding:

When unprecedented crises such as COVID-19 does occur, businesses will be remembered for how they responded to them, how they treated their employees and how they set an example by doing the right thing.

Related articles:
Airbnb axes 25% of workforce as global travel industry 'comes to a standstill'
Klook streamlines workforce, up to 20% of headcount affected
Travel marketing firm Sojern confirms global layoffs, SG office impacted
What SG employers need to note as retrenchment talks loom
AirAsia cuts jobs, ex-employee Allan Phang creates job sheet for former colleagues