With an extended period of lockdown and uncertainty over how long the furlough scheme will continue, the U.K. unemployment rate will continue to rise in 2021, resulting in 2.6 million people unemployed.
As working from home seems to be here to stay for the foreseeable future, employers are increasingly having to deliver bad news and let colleagues go remotely.
One of the more publicized cases during the first lockdown was Uber who was criticized for the manner in which 3700 employees were let go in May last year over a 3-minute zoom call. On the other hand, Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb was praised for his handling of the announcement of 1900 redundancies. How can employers strike the right balance when delivering difficult news remotely?
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Anouk Agussol, Founder and CEO of People Consultancy firm Unleashed, stresses the importance of over-communicating in these difficult times. She advises to “make sure the cascade happens really quickly. You don’t want people to be finding out this is happening to their colleagues on WhatsApp.”
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Commenting on the Airbnb example she said, “part of the reason why Brian Chesky’s message was so good is that it was the start of a comms cascade and then everything happened very quickly off the back of things. It preempted a lot of questions and immediately spoke to both those leaving and those staying.” But what happens in the case of smaller businesses where there may be just a handful of redundancies? Agussol suggests that, “your first priority should be agreeing messaging with the individual (giving them as much agency as possible over this) and then communicating that quickly and in a dignified way.”
Empathy and emotional intelligence
Ben Branson-Gateley, Cofounder and CEO of CharlieHR, reflected on his own experience of having to let someone go remotely. He said, “the big worry when it comes to remote communication, vs face to face is that there is more opportunity to hide behind screens, emails, and video cameras.”
His advice to fellow founders is “don’t fall into that trap; follow the process the same way you would usually follow it. Don’t shirk honest and open conversations.”
At this time of heightened uncertainty, there is a greater onus on leaders to show empathy and devote adequate time to deliver the news. As Branson-Gateley explained, “being told that you’re being let go is always emotional; approach it as a human, ask yourself if this was me how would I like the information communicated to me?”
Don’t just reach for the “Leave Meeting” button
Take adequate time to prepare for the meeting. Scheduling a difficult conversation in the midst of a hectic day of back to back Zoom calls may not be the wisest decision. Whilst it may be remote, both verbal and non-verbal cues are still important. Ensuring you give your employees the full attention they deserve means you need to show up with the energy and mental bandwidth to address the difficult situation.
Branson-Gately advises to “be conscious of how you look on camera – what your body language is saying. What you’re communicating is not just what comes out of your mouth. Give them time to respond and talk as well as share their opinions – don’t just reach for the “Leave Meeting” button.”
Time is the best healer
The meeting itself is likely to be difficult and emotional, but that should not be where the communications stop.
As Agussol recommends, “follow up with a personal note or email after the dust settles – to check in on the person, acknowledge it wasn’t an easy thing to have to do especially in current circumstances. Wish them all the best and remind them that you are here should they need it.”
Agussol suggests employers schedule an exit interview at a later date as “closure is even more needed when you can’t do this face to face with another human.”
As the frequency of these conversations is sadly likely to increase, remote redundancies will become the new norm. Nevertheless, demonstrating compassion and empathy will be what defines employers and how employees perceive you not only today but in the future.