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Can You Keep Corporate Layoffs a Secret?

September 10, 2013 by Judy Lindenberger

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It is next to impossible to keep corporate layoffs a secret in today’s world of instant communication. Before you have shaken the hand of a departing employee, he or she could have texted, tweeted and blogged about your meeting. In Corporate America, “what happens in Vegas” doesn’t necessarily “stay in Vegas”.


When the British company, HMV, laid off some 200 employees this year, the worker in charge of their Twitter account sent out numerous tweets like “Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand” and “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired. Exciting!”

When terminating employees, it’s best to show your cards instead of holding them. Rather than keeping layoffs a secret, let employees know ahead of time that layoffs are coming. And rather than keeping a termination a surprise, lay your cards on the table and provide verbal and written warnings so employees are not blindsided.

Your best bet at preventing rumors and misinformation is to provide your workers with accurate and timely information. Then, if a disgruntled employee lets the world know what happened to him or her, you stand a better chance that they will use the information you armed them with instead of venting.

Once an employee is let go, though, no matter what your HR policies state, former employees can exercise their First Amendment right to free speech as long as what they say is not a lie. This means that if a former employee states their truthful opinions, perspectives and experiences about a person or a company, they are within their legal rights to do so. On the other hand, if a former employee intentionally and maliciously lies about you or your company, you can sue them. And vice versa.

Since ex-employees can exercise free speech, how can you prevent them from contacting all of the people they met while working for you? Here’s one way: if they signed a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement, you may be able to require that they delete all of their customer, vendor and co-worker contacts.

Rolodexes may be the property of the company. Then there is social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Jeanne Meister, in a blog titled “To Do: Update Company’s Social Media Policy ASAP” advises companies to “develop comprehensive social media training programs” and “If you want to retain control of your online image, remember to change passwords, and restrict access to social pages before you let go of the employees who run those accounts.” Too bad HMV didn’t talk to Meister!

What else can you do? In a recent article by J. Mark Poerio and Laura E. Bain titled “Social Media in the Workplace: Employer Protections versus Employee Privacy”, they advise employers to:

  • “establish sole ownership of its business-related social media accounts, websites, blogs, and other protectable interests (e.g., trade secrets and customer lists)
  • control the password for employer media accounts and change it when key employees depart
  • establish policies to designate which employees have authority to access the employer media and what they may do once access is gained
  • require written agreements acknowledging that the content within employer media is owned by the employer
  • address, also in written agreements, the obligations of a departing employee, both as to employer media and other business-oriented contacts such as those made through LinkedIn”

Looking ahead, there should be some landmark legal decisions about what current and former employees may say about your company on social media so stay tuned!

And, I am curious … what has your company done to successfully keep corporate layoffs a secret (i.e.; what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas)?

Judy Lindenberger

Judy Lindenberger

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