The Ethics of Layoffs and Plant Closings – Tony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA

Anthony D’Angleo, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and the 2018 National Chair of PRSA. He is one of the most thoughtful public relations professionals I have ever encountered and spent a few minutes discussing ethics with us last week.

This Ethical Voices interview will look at:

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your job and your career

I had a 30-year internship in agency and corporate communications before I became a professor. The first eight years of my career were on the agency side, and then I was recruited away by a client and for more than 20 years was in the corporate sector, primarily in large global engineering based manufacturing companies. I began teaching as an adjunct professor after I got my master’s degree at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and I simply fell in love with it. I caught the teaching bug. I became a Professor of Practice in 2017 and in 2016, I became the director of an executive master’s program in communications management, which combines course work in public relations, strategic communications as well as business management and leadership. I am also the 2018 National Chair of PRSA

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?

The most difficult ethical challenge I’ve encountered goes to the number of really gut-wrenching reorganizations and layoffs I’ve had to announce as a director of communications in the corporate sector. I have announced no fewer than a dozen plant closings over the course of my career. I was the person interviewed on the evening news talking about the bad news that was going to strike a community and the residents of it.

These things are never easy. And at some point, I found myself questioning my own ethical stance in terms of what was right – for the company that I was working for was actually doing very well financially.

I also had personal relationships with many people who lost their jobs. I thought to myself, what is really right here? These people are every bit as good at their positions as I am in mine. They are losing their jobs and I’m starting to struggle with it.

So, I thought about this quite a bit. The conclusion that I came to was that I had to look at it on behalf of the organization that we all worked for and it had to deal with the long-term success and vitality of that organization to survive and thrive in a hyper-competitive environment. Sometimes that entails very, very difficult decisions. We needed to make decisions based on the long-term health of the company and that had to do with taking responsibility for the employees that work for us, the shareholders that owned us, and the communities where we operated so that the company could fulfill its role in society.

We also had to take a long view so that we would treat anyone in a way that went well beyond simply cutting them loose. I was very pleased the company took extraordinary measures to offer them other employment opportunities within the company, to extend severance and health benefits and to extend education benefits for retraining for those employees who wanted to prepare for a new trade or a new profession.

I think the idea is many times when it comes to ethics, it’s not a transactional decision that you make once, it’s a way of life that you conduct over a marathon in the life of an organization and the life of the people who populated it.

What was they key to working through these difficult decisions and achieve the optimal outcome?

A major portion of working through wrenching change is to answer the “why” questions and not just the what. Too many times, companies make these sorts of announcements simply saying what is happening. We are having a 15 percent workforce reduction, here is your severance package. Thank you very much.

That is fundamentally unsatisfying to people because nature abhors a vacuum. That kind of simple presentation of the ultimate decision, treated as though it is the complete communications will usually lead to a very difficult and controversial road ahead.

Compare that to answering the why. For the company that I was working for, the why had to do with unbelievable price competition from China, long supply routes and the lack of plant expansion ability.

In these sorts of situations, it is at least as important for our public relations professionals to bring the outside environment in. It becomes basically an educational venture so the people understand the factors that we’re dealing with. Too many times we treat it as we need to get our story out, and you do need to get your story out, but this idea of a free flow of information into the organization will turn the conversation in the right direction.

It won’t be easy, but you have a shot at making it more effective.

It works. I remember that one employee was interviewed at a plant gate the very day that I announced a plant closing. The news media went to the plant gate and interviewed the employee. And the employee said, you know, I don’t like the decision that was made today because of the effects on me, but I understand it. I see the rationale, and understood the company had to make decisions. In a difficult situation, that’s about the best you can hope for.

Lawrence Bossidy, the former chair of Honeywell, in his book, Execution, he talked about the idea that the days when a manager could simply bang his or her fists on the table and tell employees to jump are over. The best that you can do is assemble data from the marketplace and build a burning platform. If you build a burning platform for the message and people are standing on it, they will decide for themselves to jump. I think that’s the state that we need to aspire to.

Who was involved in these decisions and layoff communications?

I was fortunate in that the company leadership team had me in the discussions with our legal counsel with our VP of human resources and with the plant management. It was a healthy and open conversation because we challenged ourselves to discuss, and if need be, argue around all sides of it. Part of it had to do with a recognition by our leadership team that the decisions that we made to invest in those that we were separating from the company would have a lot to do with the communication that was happening to the employees who were staying. People believe what you do, not necessarily what you say. I think those options and those investments sent a really important message that was difficult to refute.

Additionally, our chief legal counsel once told me when we were having this discussion that it is his job to tell me the legal considerations and that all decisions carry a degree of risk. Based on that, it’s up to all of us to determine what’s our risk tolerance based on all the factors that need to go into the discussion. That was very helpful and instructive for me because here was an attorney taking a broader view of the entire organization and understanding his responsibilities. That encouraged me to take a broader view of the entire organization and my responsibilities as a communications professional. I had to be as willing to listen as I was to talk. I think that goes for everybody around the table in those kinds of situations.

How do you balance the ethics of communications with those employees laid off with those employees remaining to avoid a second exodus or minimize negative reaction?

This is a hugely important point. Too many times, the survivors are neglected in the communications plan. Ethically, that should never happen. Part of the education process has to be with the employee base. They will certainly be disturbed by news of a facility closure or a major reorganization, major layoff. They need to know the way forward.

Companies need to take a look at the long term and decide what they need to have for a healthy organization and that means your customer comes second. In other words, your employees come first because the way they are treated and the way that they see fellow employees treated, including those who may be losing their jobs, will have a great deal to do with their outlook on the company and their work ethic going forward.

I can’t emphasize enough how difficult these decisions and how difficult this work can be. I often ask my students; how would you feel if you had a number of friends that were working in a facility that you knew was being planned to be shuttered in six months? How would you feel about that? Do you feel okay keeping that confidential because you do have to keep confidential, make no mistake about that.

And that usually leads to a very spirited classroom discussion that goes to the idea that a public relations professional has to operate honorably and transparently. At the same time however, we are unabashed advocates for the organizations that we counsel. One of the principles of the code of ethics is to safeguard the confidences of our employers. So we are beholden to that because we are there to advance the interests of the organization. And what that means is, it’s really important that we all join or counsel organizations that we’re comfortable representing. We’re seeing today that employees are making employment choices based on mission, vision and values in a way that’s becoming, and this isn’t an exaggeration, as important as compensation. That is a huge and very important trend.

What is the key ethics lesson you learned going through the layoffs and plant closings?

The key lesson is to have an ethical stance and know what you’re about. I believe wholeheartedly that your foundation has to be a code of ethics. It’s really important to know what you stand for and know what your organization stands for so that you can work through the time pressure to ask yourself what’s the end game here? What are we truly trying to do in the midst of a very trying time and there will be other trying times. And so, it’s really important that we behave in the direction of the values that we’ve said we’ve signed up for. I have found that that’s really served organizations well and it’s also serves people well as we as professionals try to work our way through them is to trust in that and to keep persevering.

Is there anything you would change or do differently now than you did back then?

I think I would probably have started earlier in my career to truly learn the business of the business of whatever business that I was counseling. Before I can provide effective public relations counsel, I really need to have a view of all the other major functions and look across those silos and take the responsibility for being the connector and the integrator to those organizations.

What are the hot ethics topics in your classroom?

Students are really engaged by the topic of ethics because they read about companies that are misappropriating, misusing data, and cries of fake news with challenges being leveled at the news media. I am finding today’s students much more engaged in those kinds of issues and looking to make sense of it. How do we sort all of this out under extreme time pressure that’s been enabled by digital and social media? I think another area that’s very intriguing to them are navigating these challenges across borders, across countries and across different cultures, very, very different perspectives than we do. Wow, is that a challenge.

What ethics advice are you giving students?

A couple of things. First of all, during ethics month this year in September for PRSA where we had a lot of focus on the code of ethics, I had every student in my classes voluntarily sign PRSA’s code of ethics. I wanted them to review it, to express any concerns about it or any questions. That was the basis of a good discussion and they all enthusiastically signed by the way. This is cause for great optimism. I think that people value ethical people. I think society values ethical people. I’m optimistic that that value will always be there, but it’s important that we be prepared in a professional way to apply ethics.

And beyond that, I think there’s a lot of value in frankly some good old fashioned advice. I often quote Warren Buffet who has said famously, “Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow.” That’s pretty good advice. In other words, if it were made transparent, are you still comfortable? That’s a pretty good guideline.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve been given in your career?

If you’re okay with your activities being exposed, you’re doing the right thing.

Also, adopt an ethics code and to learn about it. In an increasingly complex, fast moving society the premium is on really internalizing a professional ethical code. That way you’re ready when things move incredibly fast.

How do you keep up with that pace of change?

It is a matter of perpetual education. I really look to PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), which continually meets and promotes thought leadership pieces having to do with different ethical principles. They call them Ethical Standards Advisories. I would recommend to anybody a visit to their page on prsa.org to see what the latest guidance is regarding such things as disclosure and transparency

An ethical foundation and continuous education are critical because the rules of our profession and the tools of our profession have been changing so much, it’s getting very, very tricky out there.

 

Listen to the Podcast for more details and insights from Tony:

 

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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