A Shining Example of How to Approach COVID-19 Driven Staff Reductions


AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky demonstrated the very model for how to approach the unhappy task of staffing reductions due to the pandemic in the most affirmative way possible. These are excruciating conversations to have and it can be difficult to find the right words/actions to use if you’re in the unenviable position of having to make these cuts within your workforce. We both commend and recommend this method for taking these tough steps within your organization’s workforce. Here’s the synopsis of his letter and process.

The latest round of unemployment figures was recently released and to no one’s surprise, they were bad. Millions of Americans have been let go, furloughed and laid off. Millions more job losses are likely to materialize in the coming weeks and months as the pandemic grinds on. This means, millions more unhappy conversations between employers who must shed good, productive, loyal employees.

In a truly heartfelt communication, Chesky prepared his workforce for impending and significant force reductions. This one short letter provides an exceptional roadmap for other companies to follow if they must make cuts to their staffing levels. Chesky’s letter put forth three critical elements to delivering bad news: empathy, compassion, and transparency. The process addresses all the elements of the announcement: current state, future state, how decisions were made, how those impacted will be supported, how those remaining will move forward, and lastly a sincere apology.

Unlike those terminated for cause, good, loyal employees are owed a clear explanation of how choices concerning who is let go were derived. Chesky’s letter clearly articulates how reductions were approached, sharing the clear principles and core values that guided the decision making. His organization’s guiding principles included:

  • Mapping of all reductions to future business strategy and the capabilities that will be needed in the post-pandemic state
  • Plans to provide as much support possible for those valued personnel who are impacted 
  • An ongoing and unwavering commitment to diversity 
  • Delivering clear, one on one communications for those impacted 
  • Commitment to communicating complete decisions and not until all details are solidified because releasing incomplete information makes matters worse

For its part, AirBnB has resolved to provide significant assistance to those workforce elements they must release. Their strategy includes providing to those who must be let go a generous severance, accelerated vesting of equity in company stock, extension of COBRA healthcare coverage and support to help those displaced land new and gainful employment elsewhere.

Specifically, this involved the following actions:

  • Looking ahead to how the pandemic would likely change the nature of how the organization could/would operate once a cure had been found and deciding which members of the workforce would be best suited to addressing the “new normal” on the other side. Then explaining to those slated for reduction how and why the decision was made to terminate their employ.
  • Delivering 14 weeks of severance pay (plus one additional week for every year the worker was at the company).
  • Removing the one-year vesting requirement to participate in equity sharing typically in place for new employees.
  • Providing bridge healthcare coverage by paying the cost of 12 months of COBRA for those affected.
  • Delivering career services, networking channels and alumni support to displaced workers as well as allowing them to keep their company issued laptops to aid in the acquisition of new work.

Chesky’s letter to his workforce laid out all these elements in clear and compassionate language. It concluded with a sincere apology and expressions of gratitude and concern for the fate of valued employees being displaced through no fault of their own.

While not every organization can afford to support the same levels of largesse demonstrated by AirBnB, every organization can certainly follow this example when it comes to empathy, compassion and transparency. It is the hallmark of an ethical workplace and equitable corporate leadership. Kudos to Brian Chesky and AirBnB for living the values espoused by their corporate charter. We urge all businesses to follow this shining example.

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