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A HUMAN TOUCH: COMMUNICATING REDUNDANCIES DURING COVID-19

Communicating redundancies across a business is complex, but with the Covid-19 pandemic keeping many employees out of the workplace, organisations need to find ways to bring compassion into their virtual worlds.

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

17th October 2020

This year, hundreds of thousands of people have been made redundant in the UK as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Internal communication has an important role to play in the redundancy process. The challenge to get it right in “normal” times, let alone during a global pandemic, is sizeable.

When there are contributing factors to contend with, it can be hard to balance the needs of the business and its employees equally. Working closely with leaders and HR is vital to ensure the official process doesn’t become too dispassionate. Internal communication brings humanity and empathy. Messaging that is too legalistic will leave your employees feeling cold and uncared for.

Don’t forget the majority of your workforce will not be made redundant – how you treat their colleagues who are departing says a lot about how much you respect the wider workforce in general.


Join the inner circle

Your plan will be most effective if you’ve had a good amount of lead-up time to put it together, so it’s important for internal communicators to be given advance warning if redundancies are being planned. IC should be part of the inner circle when it comes to decision making, both as a voice for employees, but also to steer senior leaders in the right direction. Reinforce this point in your regular conversations with leaders and HR, especially when redundancies look possible or inevitable, or when decisions are being made about furloughed workers returning to the workplace.

For Maria Pedraz, internal communications and culture specialist at EUIGS, a technological subsidiary of insurance provider Admiral Group, the key to success is in planning.

“Creating a good comms plan about something negative like redundancies can be really difficult, as you may feel that you’re already on the back foot,” says Maria, “but if you can carve out time to work on it – before, during and after the period, for future support – you’ll be better off for it.”

Roland Burton, internal communications consultant, says: “In my eyes, there are three big things IC needs to do during a period of redundancies – retain trust, aid understanding and minimise uncertainty. Internal communicators are responsible for helping to protect the organisation’s reputation, and the way to do this is to do the right thing for employees.

“Looking after employee wellbeing means giving people clarity as quickly as possible. If redundancies are likely, make sure your leadership acknowledge the uncertainty, and share updates frequently so that a vacuum doesn’t develop – or people will make up their own stories.”


Conveying warmth through screens

In an ideal world, initial communication about redundancies would be done physically face to face, but, for many organisations, Covid-19 has made this impossible.

“It’s likely that you’ll need to work harder with leaders to help them to be more visible,” says Roland. “They may find it nerve-wracking, as they will already be under a huge amount of pressure, but it’s crucial.

“Earlier this year, when I advised an organisation through a period of redundancy, I had leadership stop and consider how they wanted to be seen in the three to six months after the redundancy period had ended. They wanted to be seen as honest, trustworthy and having shown integrity, so we made those our values moving forward to determine how we communicated and what actions we took. With this goal in mind, everyone worked harder to make themselves available, be transparent and get in face time whenever they could.”

For Maria, a lack of physical presence does not justify a lack of a personal touch, which is why internal communicators should coach their leaders on soft skills that will help to make the process more human.

“Remind your leaders that they are dealing with people, not numbers or statistics,” says Maria. “Have them always switch their video on when delivering announcements – whether this be in group meetings or one-to-ones – and encourage them to be empathetic and approachable.

“Crucially, they also need to remember to listen to what employees have to say, and leave plenty of time for questions.”

During this period there will be a lot to communicate and employees will have a lot of questions they need answered. At times, it will feel overwhelming – for leaders, communicators and employees – so staying consistent is key.

Roland adds: “The story needs to be clear and concise – why change is needed, the future vision, and immediate next steps – and delivered with empathy.

“Rehearsal is even more critical when communicating virtually, whether leaders think they’re good communicators or not. Written comms can sound desperately clunky and inauthentic when read aloud, so have leaders pair up, give each other feedback and edit their notes accordingly.

“This ensures employees get the key information they need, and leaders are seen as genuine.”


Laying it all on the table

Regardless of whether or not your employees are remote, there are some guiding principles that should always be followed when communicating redundancies, and Maria has seen first-hand what happens when these aren’t taken into consideration.

“There is no excuse to not be as clear and transparent with your employees as possible,” says Maria.

“I once worked on a redundancy process in an organisation that was going through the first redundancy in its history, and IC was prevented from being transparent. There was a lot of information that was not shared and the comms was one-sided, which created a tense environment.

“There may be a lot of things to juggle during the redundancy period, but you have to engage, support and give continuous feedback to employees. By doing this, you let them know that, despite the difficulties, you really care.”

 

673,000
Total number of job losses recorded by HMRC as of October 2020 since the start of the pandemic, taking into account a 20,000 increase on company payrolls in September.
Source: Guardian

 

For Roland, keeping communication at the heart of the process throughout the entire period is paramount: “There’s often lots of focus on the initial announcement, but not on what comes next. It may take a while for the news to sink in for those who are at risk, so you need to make it possible for employees to ask questions at any moment.

“Create a virtual forum where employees can anonymously post questions and feedback, and make sure it is circulated frequently and widely so that they can see you’re actively wanting to engage. Then, have your leadership team host video calls and web chats to go through the questions in real time, so that it fosters a sense of openness and sincerity.”

Once the process is under way, it is important to keep employees updated regularly, so they’re never unclear about where the organisation is at and what its next steps will be.

“Instil a cadence of comms that gives employees structure in regard to when they will receive their next update,” says Roland. “For example, you could decide that every Friday at 10am you will update one core channel that all employees can access – even when there isn’t any new news to share – so that employees are kept in the loop with one single source of truth.”

Some of your workforce may still be on furlough, which can make communicating more difficult, but the organisation needs to treat everybody consistently. You may need to tailor how you communicate with furloughed employees, but the values you use in your approach should still be the same.

“If furloughed employees feel isolated and overlooked, this will make the redundancy period 10 times harder,” says Roland. “Work with HR to establish how you can bring them into the fold and ensure they don’t feel segregated. Although the strategy may be different, the goal of retaining trust is the same.”


Moving forward together

The majority of your workforce won’t be made redundant, and retaining the trust of employees who remain at the organisation is important. Much of how to do this will occur during the redundancy period itself.

“If your leaders and comms has been honest throughout the redundancy period, it should be easier to keep the trust of employees who are still with the company,” says Roland. “You’ll run into issues, however, if information you share with your workforce is incorrect or misleading.

“There is a human tendency to be as kind as possible when communicating bad news, but this should never be done to the detriment of the truth. Leaders softening the blow won’t be appreciated by employees further down the line when they find out all is not what they thought, no matter what their intentions.”

Employees who remain at the organisation may feel a sense of survivor’s guilt, or they may even feel uncertain about their own future and job security. Overcome this by continuing with regular updates, focusing on the future and giving people a clear reason to stay and believe in the organisation’s vision.

“It’s tempting to let things settle down once the period is over, but I always ensure that leaders stay proactive and visible,” says Roland. “Helping them craft and share stories is incredibly powerful, particularly praising specific efforts they’re seeing from people in adjusting to the ‘new world’. When done frequently and authentically, this can make all the difference to taking employees on the next stage of the journey.”

 

A fair deal

Amy Hinchliffe, associations and partnerships co-ordinator at employment law specialists Croner, advises five other things your organisation needs to do to create a legitimate and unbiased redundancy process.



Create a strong business case for the redundancy. It is vital in a redundancy process to establish the reasons why redundancies are being considered. The business case can also be the first step to analysing which group of people will be affected by the redundancy.

Look at other options. An important step in carrying out a fair redundancy process is to consider every alternative to redundancy beforehand, such as lay-off, pay reductions or transferring employees to alternative roles. Without any consideration of alternatives, it is likely that the redundancy procedure could be deemed unfair.

Carry out consultation with affected staff. Consultation should be carried out in every redundancy situation or this will cause any resulting redundancies to be unfair. Obligations vary dependent on the number of redundancies proposed, but one of the aims is to allow employees to suggest ways to avoid redundancies. Consultation has to be meaningful – listen to employees’ suggestions and make sure you consider them carefully.

Use objective selection criteria. Employees should be fairly selected for redundancy based on objective criteria such as their skills and qualifications, standards of work and disciplinary record. Attendance or length of service can be used, though this can, in some circumstances, be discriminatory.

Calculate redundancy pay correctly. Statutory redundancy pay is calculated using a set methodology based on an employee’s age, length of service and weekly pay. Be certain of how long an employee will have worked for you when their notice expires, including checking for any previous employment that counts. For example, time spent with a company that was bought by yours will count. Check for any enhanced redundancy pay terms too.

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