Managing redundancies during COVID-19: five guidelines

14 July 2020 -

Hands over laptop keyboardAs the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis deepens, redundancies are more frequent, and the conditions for making people redundant are more challenging than they’ve ever been

Mark Rowland

Managing redundancies is not an easy process at the best of times. It’s stressful for everyone involved. At this point in time, where high profile redundancies are becoming such a regular occurence, it’s heightened even more, and the redundancy process is hampered by distance. One source we spoke to said that they were having to make members of their team redundant while also waiting for clarification on their own position within the company, which is causing them extreme stress and anxiety over the future, as well as emotional exhaustion.

“On a practical level, there’s quite a big set of challenges around the timelines of redundancy,” says Nancy Roberts, who runs HR tech company Umbrella Analytics. The standard 30-90 day consultation period is predicated on an office environment, where it’s easier for staff to get together with their union reps and colleagues. Roberts questions whether that timeline is workable in a remote environment.

“There’s a real tension, because employers are going to be under pressure to start making the cuts as soon as possible, but recognising how vulnerable everyone is, and the practical problems of organising with your representatives as an employee, it’s going to be much tougher.”

The process also loses a degree of its humanity through remote forms of communication, such as video-conferencing. “I know people who’ve been going through capability proceedings who have found it really difficult to do over Zoom or Skype, because it feels much less human,” says Roberts.

Managers need to be thinking about how they can establish humanity within that conversation under very difficult circumstances – possibly with the threat of redundancy hanging over them as well. How can redundancies be managed effectively when you can’t sit in the same room?

1. Talk openly about your decision making

In this emotionally turbulent time, people will take redundancy personally. Roberts has heard from parents who are convinced that they will be made redundant because they have had to do more childcare during working hours than they would normally do. Employees will have preconceived notions about why they are being let go, so you need to give them detailed considered answers about the decision making in order to allay those fears and feelings.

“You have to remember that this particular conversation is not about you, says Roberts. “It’s about someone else’s livelihood. It’s their feelings of hurt, shock, rejection that you’re dealing with, so try as best as you can to recognise that. Don’t be defensive and make sure you have the right answers to those ‘why me?’ questions.”

2. Make sure your communication is clear

Try to use a number of different forms of communication, such as phone, video calls (which could feel more formal) and chat rooms. Don’t over-rely on email. Managers will have to work extra hard to build a rapport with the employee that is facing redundancy.

It is good practice to initiate discussions with a company- or team-wide meeting in which you lay out, in open and honest terms, what is going on with the organisation, and the need for potential redundancies. Staff are then given a chance to ask any questions they might have. This is 10 times harder to do when everyone on the team is remote.

You could try doing an all-company Zoom meeting for this conversation, but it could be unwieldy and difficult to manage particularly as it’s harder to tell if someone else is trying to talk in a large group. Sending an announcement round via email beforehand and inviting people to let you know in advance that they want to ask a question may get around that, but it will require careful management and may still get derailed as emotions are likely to be running high.

You could also announce an ‘ask me anything’ (AMA) session on the company chat channels – Slack, for example. It’s important that someone manages that session just to keep track of all of the questions and make sure they are answered. It gives the leadership team the opportunity to give considered and sensitive answers, but again, transparency and open dialogue is crucial.

“Communicate early and often,” says Roberts. “Having that honest conversation that this is a tough time and you might be facing difficult decisions is a really vital step now that people aren’t in the office. People fill in the gaps in the office anyway, but when you’re sitting at home it’s going to feel even tougher.”

3. Amp up your empathy

In a virtual environment where some humanity is lost, you need to amp up your empathy even more than you would in a typical redundancy meeting. “I don’t think you can assume that people will understand your good intentions,” says Roberts “You have to really signal that stuff.”

This is going to be a tough period for your staff, so think about what you can do as a manager to help. Roberts has seen managers try to connect newly redundant team members with potential new employers on platforms such as LinkedIn.

It's also important to acknowledge, in an authentic way, how terrible the situation is. Be upfront about the situation and give people plenty of space to be angry or upset. “I’ve really learned over this period that we don’t always necessarily want solutions,” says Roberts. “Sometimes, we just want someone to say yeah, this is really tough. So a simple thing that managers can do is acknowledge how dreadful a situation this is.”

4. Help people find help

In a badly managed redundancy process, managers hold their cards close to their chest. While there are sources of information out there for staff to use to understand their rights and what they can do, they aren’t necessarily in the best headspace to do it. This is doubly true at the moment, when the situation is already emotionally heightened.

As a result, it’s vital that managers point their staff in the direction of the right resources, and talk them through what they can do in more detail than they might have done in a normal redundancy situation, says Roberts. “We need to go the extra mile to say: maybe you want to get in touch with your union, go to ACAS, helping people out with that.”

Technology can enable the sharing of this information. For example, you could have a data room or a Slack channel that links to relevant sources of redundancy and employment rights information for employees to use. Make sure you clearly signpost these resources so that staff actually find them. CMI has a special redundancy support service for members, which includes a free session with a redundancy counsellor.

5. … and what if you’re making redundancies while being made redundant

If you’re making staff redundant while your own role is on the line, you need to be emotionally intelligent about the situation and put your own feelings aside. Remember that the role of the manager is about nurturing and empowering people to develop themselves, and put your focus on the needs of your team.

"That’s really hard, but as a manager, it’s part of the skillset that you need to learn – to be able to put your issues to the back of your mind and focus on the person in front of you,” says Roberts. “After that is done, you should deal with your issues – don’t abandon self-care entirely.”

CMI has a redundancy support service for members, which includes a free session with a redundancy counsellor.

Checklist 106 on CMI’s ManagementDirect (free to access for CMI members) provides guidance for line managers who are involved in discussions with individual employees who are facing redundancy and sets out steps which will help to make the process as painless as possible for those involved.

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