How to have a conversation with employees about redundancy during the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting Australian life in ways never seen before.

Beyond its obvious health impact, the economic impact of COVID-19 is huge. Many NFPs and businesses cannot continue in the short term and their long-term viability is even in question.

This can mean parting ways with employees who have been loyal and longstanding contributors to the organisation. This is obviously difficult for employees, but also for managers and small business owners. There is no single way to handle the conversation, particularly when it is due to the extraordinary circumstances brought on by the coronavirus.

Each organisation, workplace and employee relationship is different, and so are the reasons that people find themselves out of work. They may, for example, be stood down in the short term as the organisation may be looking to re-employ them in the future when things return to more normality. In other situations, employees may be made redundant.

While the circumstances may differ, there are some basic points to bear in mind that can ease the process for everyone. You may like to use this information as the basis for a checklist that you can refer to if you need to have one of these difficult conversations with an employee.

Preparing for the conversation

1) Be up front about why you’re meeting

Beforehand, take some time to put yourself in their shoes and approach the conversation constructively and with care. Try and be direct, and explain the context of the meeting in an honest but considerate way.

2) Understand what government support may be available

Making sure your employees are aware of any government benefits available to them may be helpful. You may wish to pursue the Government’s JobKeeper Payment, which provides opportunities to keep employees connected to the business. It is wise to recommend that your employee seeks advice in accessing the best government assistance option. Speaking to your accountant or a business adviser may be helpful as they are likely to understand all options open to you.

3) Make sure the legalities are taken care of 

It’s important to ensure the legal aspects of the departure are sorted out, including financial entitlements. The implications need to be clearly communicated to the departing employee. Due to the coronavirus, different laws may apply related to employee entitlements depending on whether they are stood down or made redundant.

Having the conversation

1) Demonstrate respect and compassion

Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity when their financial security and wellbeing is being jeopardised. It’s also important for organisation morale. How you treat people when they leave an organisation is not lost on those who remain.

2) Don’t make assumptions about how people will react

There are a number of varied emotions that employees can experience. Some may respond with anger while others may be sad or shocked. You’ll need to respond to these reactions, maintaining support and empathy.

3) Direct them towards support

If your employee needs additional support, you can direct them to your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), if you have one. You can also advise that financial support is available.

beyondblue offers a helpful guide called “Taking Care of Yourself: After retrenchment or financial loss”.

4) Offer help

Your employee may not be able to continue working in your business in the future. However, there are many ways you may be able to assist them. Tell them you’re happy to provide a reference, or connect them with business owners you know are looking for employees.

5) Show that you trust them

Most employees understand the need to hand back laptops, phones and other work equipment, but it is important to remove all access and secure systems. This should always be managed in a dignified way, that makes your employee feel trusted.

6) Set a clear ‘end date’ and stick to it

Once you’ve decided on when your employee will officially finish work, that’s it. Don’t ask them to do ‘just a few more thing’ and extend the leaving date. They deserve clarity, so they can plan for the future.

7) Don’t make people keep their departure a secret

It can be difficult for employees to pretend everything is normal during their final days of work. It might be necessary for a short period to keep the announcement quiet, for example, if a group of people are being made redundant on the same day. However, once this has occurred, it is the employee’s decision whether they want to share the news, as they will likely be looking for support from others during this time.

8) Be consistent, particularly when multiple employees are leaving

If you are in the unfortunate position of letting multiple people go, it’s good to be as consistent as possible. Inevitably, people will discuss the conversation with others, and it helps everyone if consistent messages are being delivered to people in the same situation.

Following up after the conversation

1) Stay in contact

Once you’ve had the initial conversation with your employee, keep ongoing contact with them, whether they are still at work or not, to provide support. Taking this approach may help affirm for your employee that they were caught up in circumstances beyond their control and that their core value is not diminished. If they are going to remain associated with the business, you can offer emotional support, connect through group chat tools like WhatsApp and Zoom, and provide any updates on future business planning.

2) If you are concerned about the employee’s reaction

If a person’s response and their behaviour gives you concern about their mental health, you should talk with them further. Encourage them to seek support and assist them if appropriate. Be familiar with warning signs that could indicate someone is at higher risk. Start by asking if they’re OK, and offer to drive them to see a health professional if they need it. More information about starting a conversation can be found on the Heads Up website.

3) Reflect on the conversation and be kind to yourself

These conversations are not just tough for the employee, they are tough for you. Take time to reflect on how things went and seek out people you trust to offer their perspective. You may also wish to see an appropriate health professional, like your GP or a psychologist.

There are additional resources available including:

This article was originally published by Beyond Blue. You can read the original article here. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

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