Having tough conversations with employees; a useful guide

If you’re a SME owner or HR leader in a small to medium sized business, the unfortunate reality is that there will be some tough conversations ahead. Here is a guide to help conduct these discussions as effectively as possible.

It is hard to believe how much our world has changed over the course of only a few weeks. As the world reels in reaction to this global pandemic and economic crisis, business leaders are finding themselves facing into tough and completely unexpected decisions. Decisive leadership is required to navigate through and protect the future of their business and their employees' jobs.

Obviously, there is a lot to consider in a short space of time, and as business leaders you are likely considering all possible avenues and government support options to avoid role redundancies or reduction of your employee’s hours. But in many cases, leaders have reviewed the financials and their legal obligations and are finding themselves having to communicate partial or full stand downs of employees or even role redundancies.

These conversations are always tough. How well you communicate this news can have a big impact on your employee’s well-being and future loyalty. So here are a few tips on how to manage through these conversations in as respectful and supportive a way as possible:

Wherever you can, consult with your teams and be honest. Often a leader’s first instinct is to reassure when the going gets tough rather than being honest. But this can backfire with a challenge this big and in the long term can create confusion and reduce trust and your credibility.

  • Be honest about the situation, the challenges and what is being considered. Being authentic and demonstrating trust will encourage those behaviours in return
  • Let people know what has already been considered to avoid jobs being impacted
  • Be clear that action needs to be taken now to try to help the business and people’s jobs survive this challenge
  • Ask for ideas and opinions on what can be done to reduce costs or increase income.
  • If redundancies are being considered, ask people for other ideas on how this could be avoided, they may surprise you.

If you have to communicate a job loss or reduction in hours, the following principals should help:

Plan for the conversation

Know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Put yourself in their shoes and think about their personal situation, what questions they may have, how this will impact them and what information they need to navigate through the coming weeks. I normally suggest you pull together a script for this meeting, not to read verbatim from, but to ensure you have the conversation clear in your mind before you begin.

Be authentic

It’s OK that this is a hard message to convey and a decision you don’t want to be taking… you can say and show this, just don’t forget that ultimately the conversation is about and impacting on them the most, not you (so don’t overdo it)

Get to the point

With tricky conversations we can get nervous and over talk to fill the silence, this can confuse the conversation and detract from the key messages. I normally suggest that you quickly set the scene/environment and then focus in on what this means for the employee. Ift here are silences, ask questions and check on their understanding/welfare instead of over talking.

Recognise the impact of shock

It is common for employees to go into shock once a job impact is communicated, they may then not absorb much of what you say after that message is conveyed. Give them time to process the news and follow up with them the next day to make sure they understand what’s happening next. Put key details in writing if appropriate so they aren’t missed.

Provide support

Show respect and don’t rush it:

In the conversation:

Allow them some time and space to react and process. Allowing them time to ask questions and express their feelings isOK, it helps them work through the stages of grief faster (Shock, Anger,Rejection, Acceptance and Healing). Everyone works through this emotional process at different paces so try not to dismiss their reaction or judge them too harshly. If someone is getting stuck on a challenging emotion like Anger orRejection, then the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or outplacement service sare a great option to consider if available.

After the conversation: Think about the logistics and what support they may need:

  • What support do they have available (at home with them or via phone) to help them process the news?
  • Do they need support telling family members?
  • How would they like this communicated to the team, do they want to be involved?
  • Do you have an EAP they could engage with or outplacement support options?
  • Are there any close friends in the team whom they would like to sit/walk with them (or call them if working remotely)?
  • Book in a follow up time (ideally in the next day or so) to get their feedback and work through questions and next steps

Follow up

Make sure you are checking in with them regularly in the days following the announcement. When managing a consultation process, don’t let it drag out as this period of uncertainty can be very challenging for those impacted. It’s the small things and personal touches that can make a real difference to an employee impacted by job redundancies or reductions, show them you care by making this a smooth and respectful process. Consider any redeployment options available (either internally or perhaps external networks you can refer them to). Make sure they know of any additional support available to them, such as outplacement, EAP programs or the recently communicated Federal or state based COVID-19 support packages.

These types of conversations are seldom wanted and never easy. The above should help you support your employees through these tough conversations but be conscious also of the emotional toll that this can have on you as a leader. Utilise your own personal support network and take steps to protect and manage your own health and well-being so that you are in a better place to lead your employees through this challenging time.

At TQ we appreciate how hard this can be and the pressure that this is putting on business leaders. We are always happy to be a sounding board or to roll up our sleeves to (virtually) help you support your business and employees through these turbulent times.

If this was helpful, and you would like to explore this or other HR matters, feel free to reach out and connect with me directly

Ana leads human resource projects for TQ clients and works with the leadership team to support the human resource governance and engagement initiatives for our own TQ team of experts. Ana spent 18 years before joining TQ building her knowledge and expertise in generalist human resource partnerships. Her experiences range from large multi-national organisations to small to medium sized enterprises and start-ups. Her past experience has enabled her to build significant change and project management, employee engagement, industrial relations and leadership expertise.

Ana first discovered TQ when she engaged us as a client to support her talent acquisition needs (first at GE and later at Credit Corp). TQ left a great impression on her and she loved our passion, innovation, expertise and ability to deliver results.

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