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Up close and impersonal
Published on Friday, 01 Jul 2011
In Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character travels across the United States to hand workers their walking papers.
Photo: Dale Robinette & Paramount Pictures

Communication strategist Paul Matalucci says he doesn't envy what actor George Clooney has to do as a corporate downsizer-for-hire in the movie Up In The Air. And neither is he like Donald Trump in The Apprentice.

Clooney, in his role as Ryan Bingham, has to tell employees they have been laid off, acting on behalf of employers who are unwilling to do the job themselves, while Trump is brutal when he fires apprentices on his reality TV show.

"We never use the words `You are fired' like Trump does. We always say `Your position has been eliminated.' It's important not to attach any blame to it all," Matalucci explains.

As president of US-based Wordwright Communications, Matalucci helps companies communicate with staff and deals with senior leadership of big corporations with 5,000 to 150,000 employees.

Wordwright opened its office in Hong Kong in March 2010 and got its first client two months later.

The company is all about assisting clients to articulate their message, vision and strategic directions in good times and in bad, Matalucci says.

"Communication is prerequisite and fundamental to staff management and long-term staff development," he adds. 

Communication, Matalucci continues, has to be up and down in order to connect people and various business units throughout organisations.

"When the economy is good, much of my job is about strengthening a company's communication capability both externally to expand the scope of the business, and internally to boost staff morale and rally support. When the economy goes south, a lot of communication will be shifted internally to reinforce and stabilise staff to give them a better sense of belonging."

In really bad times, that means notification meetings and staff losing their jobs, a situation that has become more prevalent in the United States over the past few years.

When it comes to lay-offs it's not Matalucci and his staff who do the firing; they train managers and companies how to relay the bad news.

"My training helps companies not to lose sight of the importance of doing it well when it comes to laying off people. And very often, people tend to forget that it is also quite an emotional journey for the manager who has to break the bad news," he says.

"It's never easy to lay off someone. We tend to tell our clients to limit the entire process to just four minutes because we need to give the employee the personal space to let the news sink in. But before we close the notification meeting, the manager will have to keep reinforcing the message to ensure that the message has been clearly understood because a lot of times it takes some time for the bad news to sink in."

One important rule, Matalucci says, is that affected staff should be told the lay-off is not personal and no blame is apportioned, and that it's merely a business decision. "We should never sugar-coat it because there is no better way of laying off someone. We must treat staff with respect and dignity," he adds.

Going about the process in a professional way is also important to the company's long-term interests.

"People remember how badly you treat your staff when you let them go and they will spread the word so good people will not want to join your company when the economy improves. Treat staff well even in bad times and treat them with respect when you let them go," he stresses.

RJ Asher, former head of human resources for Asia Pacific at Avon Products, agrees that communication is critical to a company's long-term growth and its ability to attract and retain talent.

"No matter how big or small a company is or whether you are delivering good or bad news, the message has to be communicated the right way," Asher says, adding that clear communication is imperative especially when a company is handing out bad news because it can eliminate misunderstanding.

"When it's done correctly and in a humane way, people will not feel abused and the company is less likely to be challenged," Asher says.

Matalucci points out that it is also vital to communicate properly with "survivors" to explain how their colleagues were treated and what the future plans are in order to move the company forward and stabilise staff morale. If there is any silver lining to notification meetings, Matalucci says they help in the career development of senior managers who can deal with such an emotional process in a professional setting and learn how to handle negative situations.


Exit strategy

  • Treat them with respect
  • Get to the point
  • Stick to the facts and avoid sugar-coating your messages


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