Microsoft's misguided memo: an employee communications lesson

They say it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. And in business, you could say that it’s not the business decision, it’s how you communicate it.

When Microsoft announced 18,000 roles would be made redundant in July, the organisation’s handling of these cuts – rather than the cuts themselves – soon became a story in its own right, thanks to a misguided memo from a Microsoft executive.

Stephen Elop, Executive Vice President for Devices and Services, emailed staff to announce the lay-offs. At 1,100 words and filled to the brim with corporate jargon and misnomers, it wasn’t well received and soon became a case study of internal communications gone wrong.

It hit the media, with publications such as Forbes and the Financial Times offering some particularly disapproving commentary. Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times described it as “a classic example of how not to fire people”.

Microsoft is still dealing with the fallout from this memo and the company’s pain provides valuable, if unfortunate lessons for communicators, such as:

Know your audience

A 1,100-word memo for employees of a software company – who would be more likely to spend their days writing code and crunching numbers than pouring through pages of written text – was a miscalculated approach.

Speak clearly and consistently

A week before Elop’s memo, CEO Satya Nadella outlined a new corporate vision for the company, hinting at large-scale changes. A more natural option would have been for Nadella to follow through on his previous message, as Elop’s style and tone was not a clean fit with Nadella’s.

Get straight to the point

The prose was bogged down by excessive corporate jargon and the crux of the message wasn’t delivered until the eleventh paragraph. It’s important to be a straight-talking organisation when handling such weighty news and the critical facts shouldn’t have been buried in a lengthy message.

Be empathetic

Elop’s memo was lacking in warmth and offered little comfort to the thousands of people it would affect. As Lucy Kellaway mentioned in her Financial Times piece, starting the memo with ‘hello there’ made Elop sound aloof and put the message on the back foot right at the outset. Delivering news of job cuts demands a tone that is sensitive and thoughtful.

Microsoft’s journey of late is a reminder of the importance of acting with care when communicating with staff. Employees are a company’s greatest asset and they should be addressed as being nothing less.