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Jennifer Benz February 10, 2009 3 min read

How to Communicate a Furlough

Help your employees understand what this mandatory unpaid leave is all about

I was at a Silicon Valley IABC meeting last week and was asked about communicating furloughs—how do companies do this? What are they all about? Just the next day, the San Francisco Examiner was reporting that Furlough Fridays begin for California State Workers. And, today, as I’m writing this post, I just got a call from a friend who is also VP of HR, who is right in the midst of dealing with last week’s furlough announcement.

This term “furlough” is all over the news but with its awkward usage and confusion over what it means, communicating it to employees is even more of a challenge.

Wiktionary says a furlough is “A leave of absence or vacation, especially one granted to a member of the armed forces, or to a prisoner.” In fact, the original meaning referred to a true vacation, hardly the use today.

Today, for HR purposes, a furlough is a mandatory or required leave without pay. I have also heard it called a “temporary layoff.” Communicating this to employees is sensitive for a long list of reasons, mostly because it is such a harsh and immediate impact to their paycheck but also because it raises alarming questions about the future security of their job and the company.

Companies need to be swift and open with their communications about a furlough. Keep in mind, you must communicate even when you don’t know everything and uncertainty always calls for more communication, not less.

Use these tips to help your furlough communication be more successful:

  • Make sure the communication comes directly from a senior executive, most likely the CEO, and speaks from his or her personal perspective. (No corporate speak!)
  • Clearly define what a furlough is—do not expect your employees to understand what it means. Use plain language. “A furlough is a mandatory unpaid leave of absence” or “a furlough is a requirement to take unpaid time off.”
  • Explain why this is happening, what it means to employees (including the impact on their benefits), and what they can expect down the road
  • Note when and how you will communicate more information
  • Give employees an avenue to go to with their questions and concerns
  • And, please, don’t turn “furlough” into a verb. Especially when dealing with an unusual term like this, don’t be tempted to start “furloughing.” That construction is not grammatically correct but it is also more confusing for employees. The correct usage is “we must require that employees take a furlough, or an unpaid leave” not “we must furlough employees.”

I found this example from Gannett’s CEO Craig Dubow. His announcement hits all the key points but he does make the mistake of turning furlough into a verb when he says “…will be furloughed for the equivalent of one week…” It would have been better to say “This means that most of our U.S. employees—including myself and all other top executives—will be required to take a one-week furlough, or unpaid leave, in the first quarter.”

Today Gannett is implementing a furlough program across all U.S. divisions and at corporate headquarters. This means that most of our U.S. employees – including myself and all other top executives – will be furloughed for the equivalent of one week in the first quarter. This furlough will be unpaid. Unions also will be asked to participate.

We are doing this to preserve our operations and continue to deliver for our customers while confronting the issues raised by some of the most difficult economic conditions we have ever experienced.

After much consideration, we decided a furlough program would be the fairest and least intrusive way to meet these fiscal challenges in the first quarter, which is traditionally the lightest time of the year. We sincerely hope this minimizes the need for any layoffs going forward.

As the day goes on, you will be receiving information from your division presidents explaining the program, including some FAQs to help answer any of your questions and address your concerns about pay and benefits.

We have made some very difficult decisions this past year, all with the goal of keeping Gannett strong and preparing for the future. I understand I have asked a great deal of you, and I regret adding to your burden with this program.

But my sincere hope is that this step removes the need to do anything more drastic, and that business conditions improve. As always, I thank you for your patience and loyalty to Gannett.

Please send me your furlough stories or questions and I’ll add to this post.

Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.