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Firm Management

PwC U.K. is Doing Quiet Layoffs—and It’s a Brilliant Example of What Not to Do

PwC in the U.K. is asking people who take a voluntary severance package to keep the reason for their departure hush-hush.

By Suzanne Lucas, Inc. (TNS)

What if you laid someone off but forbade them from telling anyone?

The Financial Times is reporting that accounting powerhouse PwC is conducting “silent lay-offs” in the U.K.—they’re asking people who take a voluntary severance package to keep the reason for their departure hush-hush.

PwC is asking laid-off employees to keep explanations of their departure limited to the following information:

  • “You can notify your coworkers of your departure”
  • “You may not mention your severance offer”
  • “You may not be derogatory to PwC”
  • “The ‘business’ will review all messages”

Then they gave guidelines that everyone will probably recognize, such as the involuntary termination notice in which the person says, “It hasn’t been an easy decision for me” and “I am really excited about what the future holds for me.” The only thing missing is, “I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family.”

While this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, PwC’s quiet layoff approach is a disaster, and not the way to conduct a voluntary layoff. I’ll break down the problems.

This makes the termination look worse than it is.

In the absence of information, people make things up. If Nigel sends out one of these canned emails, everyone will think that Nigel did not leave on his own accord. Except, because this was part of a voluntary program, he did leave on his own. But it doesn’t look that way.

Why make Nigel look like you forced him out instead of telling the truth, that he volunteered to take a package and leave? There are a million reasons why people might opt for severance, and they are all better than “Nigel was fired.” And people are more likely to be concerned about involuntary terminations than voluntary severance packages.

Layoffs are never a secret.

PwC conducted layoffs at the end of 2023. The company’s employees know this. They may be nervous that more layoffs are on the horizon.

By trying to keep these layoffs a secret, PwC is ensuring that employees will only continue to be nervous about their jobs becoming redundant. Instead, be honest: “We need to reduce our headcount, and we are doing so by asking for volunteers. Here is what you would be eligible for if you volunteered …”

That’s a much better message than, “Everything is fine! Don’t worry about Nigel! He’s looking forward to spending more time with his family!”

The only reason to hide something is because you’re embarrassed about it. Presumably, you don’t want clients to know you’re struggling financially. That makes sense, but they will figure it out soon enough, once Nigel is no longer taking their calls.

Secret voluntary layoffs defeat the purpose.

I’ve conducted many voluntary layoffs. The only way to get volunteers is to let everyone know that a package is available for them. Otherwise, only people who have heard about it through rumors and whispers will know to volunteer.

Typically, in a voluntary layoff, not everyone who asks for a severance package will be granted one. Why? Because with volunteers, you may find that everyone in Department A volunteers, and no one in Department B does. That doesn’t work. You have to be pretty picky about who you select, even when it’s voluntary. You also want to counsel people on what “voluntary” means.

This is PwC in the U.K., and obviously, they operate under different laws than we do here in the United States. But in case you’re thinking about following this bad example, I asked employment attorney Jon Hyman for advice. He said, “This request would seem to fall under the umbrella of ‘protected concerted activity’ that the NLRB would take issue with. That said, the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to supervisors—defined as one with the authority to make personnel decisions using independent judgment.

“Thus,” he continues, “whether this specific PwC request runs afoul of the NLRA’s legal protections for employees to engage in protected concerted activity would depend on whether the laid-off employees were ‘supervisors’ under the Act.”

So, make sure you check with your own employment attorney before doing something like this. Or better yet, don’t do something like this.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.


(c) 2024 Mansueto Ventures LLC; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.