As the impact of the pandemic evolves, some practices will quickly need to make very difficult decisions, says Matthew Turner
We have looked at all the options, but unfortunately it looks likely our practice will need to implement some redundancies due to the coronavirus epidemic. How should I deliver the news when we can’t meet face-to-face? What should I say to the employees who remain?
Laying off employees is difficult in normal times, but in the current situation the task can be overwhelming. As a manager, you’re pulled in different directions: your heart goes out, but you have a responsibility to the organisation. That tension is magnified when you’re also likely to be worried about your own fate.
Make sure you’re prepared before you reach out to the affected employees. People are likely to have a lot of questions about the timing, their benefits, and severance arrangements.
These conversations may need to happen fast, but you’ll have a better chance of easing your own and the employee’s anxiety if you can indicate what happens next practically. Expect questions such as ‘When will I get my last paycheque?’ and ‘What happens to my pension?’
Show empathy and compassion for your employee, and stress that this is not their fault. Because you will deliver the message remotely, take extra care to ensure that the time and place for this very private conversation is appropriate for both of you.
Your aim is to treat the person with dignity, fairness, and respect. Your message should be clear, concise, and unequivocal. You might simply say at the outset, for instance: ‘I’m sorry, but at the end of next week we are terminating your job.’ This might sound cold, but its clarity allows the other person to process what you’re saying.
Be human. Express gratitude for their hard work and dedication. Then offer a short and simple explanation about the economic conditions that led to the layoff. Stress that this is not about specific job performance; that it is not their fault, but due to a global circumstance that none of us created.
Acknowledge that one of the difficult things about being laid off during this crisis is that colleagues won’t get a chance to say goodbye in person. After all, for a lot of people, colleagues are part of their extended family. Try to convey the message ‘we all care about you’.
Even though you may well be worrying about yourself as well, this is not about you. Don’t succumb to your insecurities by saying something like ‘this is really hard for me’.
Recognise that the person on the other side of the conversation may need time to process the news and may have questions for you later, so make yourself available to provide support after the initial conversation.
Be helpful; provide information on where your employee should go for benefits, offer ideas about job opportunities at other practices, and enthusiastically offer to provide a reference.
Don’t overcommit to things you can’t deliver
But don’t overcommit to things you can’t deliver. You may feel tempted to say something like: ‘when the economy improves, we would love to have you come back’. Unfortunately, no one has that kind of foresight at the moment.
Remaining staff will be looking to you for comfort. Transparency is key. Consider holding an ‘ask me anything’ session, so that rumours don’t take hold. You will need a succinct explanation of why the layoffs were necessary. Then be prepared to absorb their tension and agitation and listen to their concerns. All eyes are on you to provide direction, so avoid exposing your team to your stress and emotion. Find ways to vent this away from the practice.
Finally, consider writing your laid-off employee a ‘thank you’ note to express your gratitude and appreciation and say goodbye. At a time like this, it’s a gesture that will be remembered.
AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. Email him in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org.