Tesco layoff announcement begs the question “Is there a good way to say ‘You’re all fired?’ “

Photo: Tesco

UK retailer Tesco laid off 1,200 people, one-quarter of its headquarters staff. Its layoff announcements have become perfunctory and heartless. Should we praise the company’s honesty?

Here’s the public statement from Tesco, as reported in The Independent:

This is a significant next step to continue the turnaround of the business. This new service model will simplify the way we organise ourselves, reduce duplication and cost but also, very importantly, allow us to invest in serving shoppers better.

We have made good progress so far in our turnaround but we have more to do. We will work with colleagues to support them as we go through this important transition.

This gets points for brevity, if not sympathy or clarity. “We will work with colleagues to support them as we go through this important transition,” is the least you can say when over a thousand people lose their jobs. And while laying people off obviously reduces duplication and cost, it’s not clear how, by itself, it simplifies organization or serves shoppers better.

Tesco spokespeople may just be getting tired of making statements about people losing their jobs. The previous week they had cut an entire 1,100-job call center in Cardiff, with this statement:

Tesco has today announced its intention to simplify its customer service operations by consolidating its Customer Engagement Centres (CEC) into a single, expanded operation in Dundee. As part of the changes, Tesco has taken the difficult decision to close its other CEC located in Cardiff.

This will allow Tesco to simplify its operations while continuing to offer a high level of customer service over the phone, by email, and on social media.

The changes form part of a wider programme of transformation, which has been taking place over the last two years, to ensure Tesco runs its business in a sustainable and cost-effective way, and is set up for the future in a rapidly changing retail sector.

Tesco is proposing to close its Cardiff CEC in February 2018, with 1,100 colleagues affected. Tesco also expects to create 250 new roles at its Dundee office.

Matt Davies, UK CEO of Tesco, said:

“The retail sector is facing unprecedented challenges and we must ensure we run our business in a sustainable and cost-effective way, while meeting the changing needs of our customers.

“To help us achieve this, we’ve taken the difficult decision to close our customer service operations in Cardiff.

“We realise this will have a significant effect on colleagues in the Cardiff area, and our priority now is to continue to do all we can to support them at this time.”

Re-imagining these statements for different audiences

Here’s the problem: Retail is in crisis. Like any other collapsing business, Tesco has to rethink what it does and cut costs. That means letting people go. And as I’ve described in countless layoff announcements on this blog, such an action demands a statement that balances promising shareholders that things will improve, and expressing sympathy to laid off workers. Those two goals are at odds: you want to appear tough to the markets but express empathy to the people you’ve just sacked. (Tesco doesn’t appear to have much left in the empathy department.)

Let’s make it easy. Let’s write different, completely honest versions of these statements for the different audiences.

To the markets

Tesco needs bigger profits, so we created a plan for a company that has a lower cost base. We laid off an entire call center and one-fourth of our staff in the UK headquarters. Don’t worry, they’re just people doing stuff we don’t need. This action will enable us to make more money, so you should value the company more highly.

To the management

We developed an awesome new plan for what Tesco looks like moving forward. We call this “a programme of transformation to run the business in a sustainable way.” That means spending our money on digital stuff rather than low-level staffers whose work can be more efficiently done by machines. We’re managers, so we know that people are just “resources.” Change is hard, but things will be better for the rest of us once it’s done.

To the workers

We can’t keep running the company the same way. It’s a different world, so we have a different strategy. Thanks for your loyal work for us, but loyalty is a one-way street — we answer first to shareholders and second to customers, so you’re last in line. Sorry to see you go, but that’s life.

These messages are fundamentally incompatible. That’s why so many layoff notices sound so fraught and dishonest. In case you’re wondering which one is closest to the truth . . . .it’s the one for the markets.

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  1. “We answer…second to customers.” Yet there’s no message for customers. So let me try: “We just let 1,200 people go. Many of them were your friends and neighbors, and you might be wondering if Tesco has much of a future. We think we do, and this move – though unpleasant – is the only way we can keep prices down for you, our customers. Please please please don’t give up on us.”