It was a scene I’d witnessed far too often in my corporate career. In fact, I was the media relations contact for 26 site closures or significant workforce reductions at locations across the country. Not all of them hit the press, but every one of them hit people—hard.
I never had those words directed at me, so I would be fooling myself if I pretended to know what those people felt. Even so, I became all too acquainted with that atmosphere of anguish.
Nowadays we all can experience that anguish through the marvel of social media—and maybe corporate America can learn a lesson.
I don’t blame whoever posted last week’s YouTube video of Carrier Air Conditioner President Chris Nelson announcing the move of Carrier’s manufacturing and distribution sites from Indianapolis to Monterrey, Mexico. Neither should Carrier. Instant news via social media is present-day reality. Even in my corporate days, texting news of site closures to the local press was commonplace.
What I do find troubling is Nelson’s insistence of sticking to his script, going so far as to scold workers for complaining before he made it through his speech. Indeed, that was the only time he showed any real emotion over what was happening.
Thanks to YouTube, the whole world can see how he blew it.
I get the need for a script. I wrote similar narratives myself. But Nelson’s lack of empathy, his focus on getting the words out instead of giving them meaning, made every expression of support sound hollow. What’s worse, the business rationale—necessarily part of the message—was vague at best and emphasized at the cost of caring about the people in the room.
Nelson and Carrier missed an opportunity to show workers and the community that this really was an agonizing decision they didn’t want to make (assuming that’s true) and that they have a genuine desire to listen and to ease the impact. How much more effective Nelson could have been if he’d trashed his script, stepped forward, acknowledged the crowd’s anger, explained briefly and simply why the decision was made, and then invited comments and questions. Treat the moment as a conversation with stunned, upset colleagues instead of a verbal bulletin board announcement.
Would that have been uncomfortable for Nelson? Might he have faced hard questions, even open hostility? Might he have had to deal with insults to himself and his company?
Yep. And to that I say: Too bad.
Being a senior leader means having to be a grown-up. Making a “difficult decision” means bearing its consequences. Communicating like you are “aware of the effect” on people and communities means you have a conversation with them, you answer every question you can and promise when you’ll answer those you can’t. Hiding behind scripted comments and a hand-off to a lower-level manager doesn’t cut it.
Perhaps Carrier and other companies can learn from this soiled laundry being aired on YouTube. Perhaps corporations that must close sites or downsize staff will finally begin to look at how to do so in a respectful, empathetic way.
But I doubt it. I fear the more likely outcome will be confiscating of cellphones at employee meetings, or threats to cut off separation benefits for anyone posting to social media.
All too often, it’s less about the people and more about preserving the narrative.