Many  employers are having to let people go  at the moment, or they will in the near future. Often the only way to pass that message is via Zoom, direct into people’s homes. That brings a real risk of damaging negative external scrutiny: in mainstream and social media, on review sites like Glassdoor, possibly from regulators and even in employment tribunals. This will affect how you as an employer are seen by prospective employees, clients, partners and investors for many years. 

How you deliver this sort of message becomes even more important during a pandemic. I’ll finish by referencing the bar setting work done recently by Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky, but first five thoughts on how to succeed.  

It’s important when planning a redundancy exercise to give each of these risks sufficient thought: getting the message right is about so much more than following the rules and legal compliance. It’s about being as fair and kind as you can be in unfair world.  

Five thoughts 

  1. People giving these messages need support and trainingThey need not to be hard on themselves and there needs to be a recognition that this can be traumatic – particularly when you have come to know the people around you well and you are clear that they have done little, if anything, wrong. Sudden feelings of despair may arise weeks later. Giving people the opportunity to practice delivering the message out loud, in a safe place can be really helpful. 
  2. The efforts of everyone involved on the employer’s behalf could be focused on having one simple long term end in mind – perhaps you want the people being made redundant to say something like this (next year or the year after): “that was hard (and not what I wanted at the time), but it was done as well as it could have been – respectfully and in line with the values. I was listened to and treated as a human being.”  That can become the benchmark. 
  3. It’s difficult to over emphasise the power of plain speaking - over worn phrases, euphemisms and corporate jargon can jar; you don’t want to hear platitudes in a deeply personal, life altering moment. Phrases like, unprecedented times and the new normal have already become grating and disengaging, even in low stakes interactions.  
  4. To script or not to script? An unfiltered version in your own words will be the most authentic, transparent, human and empathetic version. But it’s likely not to be what’s on a script – particularly one designed to meet legal/compliance rules. So perhaps deliver an unfiltered version that you have thought carefully about for the person in front of you and then tell them that you have a script and you want to check that you have covered off everything. 
  5. Listen well, answer the questions that they have. If the person reacts emotionally, stay with them, leave space for their emotions. These may encompass confusion/denial and negotiation, grief sadness and withdrawal or anger and frustration. Be prepared, notice the emotion being displayed and engage with it. This is what treating someone as a human being is all about. 

Our advice is to bring forward all of the support that you would normally have in place – whether that’s outplacement support or whatever’s offered by your Employee Assistance Programme. We are suggesting to anyone who is delivering redundancy and termination messages over Zoom that they should have briefed and ready to deploy suitably qualified and experienced mental health professionals – in case the conversation goes badly. And make sure that you have the employee’s mobile phone number. 

One warning. We were recently talking to an employee who had attempted to engage (at our suggestion) their employer’s Employee Assistance Programme for counselling type support. The employee recognised that they were in a state of some anxiety when they called the help line. However, they simply found it too difficult to access the facility; they were asked so many questions to determine their entitlement to use the service that they hung up.  

In my work I get to consider how various organisations approach this sort of thing. I do think that Brian Chesky at Airbnb has created a new benchmark and would advise anyone contemplating losing staff in this pandemic to the full statement that he sent to all staff and of course to all stakeholders and potential stakeholders for many years (the link is below). My analysis is that he was above all human. He sugar coated nothing, explaining the very real problems facing the business and how they had approached difficult selection decisions. It feels like Airbnb were as generous as they possibly could be to those leaving – which will always help. Above all though he was true to the mission and he spoke both to employees staying – about how to honour those leaving – and to those leaving: know this is not your fault”.   

The psychology of that statement is critical. And it’s not the sort of thing that I wrote in any of the scripts I wrote for people delivering redundancy messages when I worked as an employment lawyer. It really feels as though things may have changed in the world of redundancy. 

Link to Chesky’s full statement