How to effectively handle layoff communication during COVID-19

Businesses across the world are hit hard by COVID-19, with companies and employees learning and struggling to adapt to the new normal, including working from home, current economic crisis, impact on sales and revenue—the list goes on. No one could have anticipated this pandemic nor the pace at which it will impact the people business and communities.

As the ripple effects of the crisis move across categories, business leaders are trying to discern how to manage business and employees. Unfortunately, most are forced to make difficult decisions regarding their employees. While, arguably, this is the worst time to lay people off, it has become inevitable.

There is no easy way to tell someone that they have been let go, but good communication and management strategy on how to handle this makes a huge difference to your company’s reputation.

Whether you are planning to do job or pay cuts, or have decided to lay off people, here’s your guide to effectively handling layoff communication during COVID-19

  1. Create A Task Force:  A decision such as this impacts not just a few individuals but the entire organisation. Hence it is important to build a task force comprising of the leaders from across business verticals, HR teams and key employees that can help formulate a concrete plan with defined tactics and approach to handle the situation. Moreover, the support and suggestions of your team members, during this time, definitely help you to sail through swiftly.
  1. Make A Plan: It is never a good idea to jump without a proper plan. In situations such as these, things move very quickly and hence there is often an inclination to react at a tactical level. Please be wary, an informal approach may do more harm than good with inconsistent messages, promoting active rumours, and plunging productivity. A plan with a clearly defined approach, messages, and timelines keep those with communication roles focused and ensure no steps are missed.
  1. Communication Is The Key: It’s never easy to deliver difficult news. But how you communicate makes all the difference. Hence it is important to draft a communication manual defining your key messages. Communicate and acknowledge that it is a difficult situation. Give clear reasoning behind the decision and how important it is for business resilience and continuity. It doesn’t need to be apologetic, but definitely empathetic considering the emotional impact on employees. Focus on expressing concern for those who are impacted. Be clear about the details or things that still need to be figured out like new organizational structures, hierarchy changes in policies, etc. Also, talk about the process to get there and timelines pertaining to the same.
  1. Communication Channels: The gold standard of delivering such news is always face to face.  However, it may not be possible every time given the strength of your workforce or in special cases such as this pandemic. It is always good if an employee hears from someone directly via personal calls or brief online meetings – an email in such a situation may seem impersonal or insensitive. 
    But if your organisation is broader with a large impacted group and email is the only way to reach the employees efficiently. Make sure the content of the email is empathetic, personally explaining the context and steps taken by the organization for support along with the immediate steps such as follow up calls with individual managers or HR, so that employees get all their questions answered. You may also consider 15-20 minute web meeting with all employees at a pre-decided time.
  1. Prep Up The Leaders And Managers Front Ending The Task: Even though it is tempting to hide away and escape such conversations, it is definitely not a viable option. It is important to conduct communication training for those who are front ending this, to ensure consistency in the delivery of the message, practice how to answer difficult questions and lastly to flag the trap of making promises that can’t be kept.
  1. Be Consistent:  It is said that consistency and communication is truly everything. With emotions running high and increased anxiety levels, people are bound to talk more with each other.  Your employees, customers, media, community and industry influencers will talk to each other and you surely don’t want to hurt your credibility by sharing different messages with each. Be consistent and careful about your communication with different stakeholders.
  1. Sequence:  It is a cardinal rule to always inform those who are impacted first before everyone else, and then to those outside of your organization on an as-needed basis. It is always good to be prepared in advance. Organization blog or some must have a standby statement ready in case of media inquiry.
  1. Employees Who Remain:  You may think your work is done after notifying everyone, however, there’s still work to do. Layoffs can be stressful, distracting, and disturbing for those who remain, leaving them hanging with questions like their individual job security, how to manage the same work with fewer people, and many more. Hence it is important to communicate with them regularly and reinforce support and appreciation.  Acknowledge and accept short term plunge in productivity, offer your employees a safe place to go with questions, and answer any query pertaining to the future.


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