Against the backdrop of the pandemic, many employees are dealing with sickness, anxiety (in relation to themselves or a vulnerable relative) and, in some cases, grief as a result of Covid-19. Telling an employee that they are at risk of redundancy or that they must return to work in these circumstances are hard conversations to have and they can easily go wrong.
Our list of dos and don’ts are a quick reminder for HR of how to stay on track, saying the right thing at the right time when faced with a difficult conversation.
DO: Know the rules
Whether it’s your absence policy, health and safety rules or a collective redundancy procedure, make sure you (and the appropriate line managers) know the rules. Don’t assume prior knowledge. Even if you or your colleagues are experienced in handling a particular HR process, bear in mind that not everybody is likely to be up to speed with policy changes, particularly if they have been made recently in response to the pandemic.
DO: Plan ahead and practise
Plan ahead and anticipate the questions you may be asked before you hold a difficult conversation. Expect the unexpected and, if the rules are complicated, consider preparing a script or a set of FAQs. If you have to make announcements or speeches, practise them until you feel confident and your delivery is assured and sincere.
DON’T: Use ‘coded’ or complicated language
Dressing up a difficult message in veiled or ‘coded’ language such as ‘you might want to think about…’ rather than ‘you must...’ significantly increases the risk of misunderstandings. The same goes for overly long-winded and complicated explanations. These will potentially open the door to procedural problems and legal claims so be concise and use plain English to keep your communications easily understood by all, particularly employees with learning disabilities or for whom English is their second language.
DO: Get a grip on the logistics
At the moment, there may be very limited options for where you can hold a difficult conversation. If you are in the workplace, be mindful of social distancing and consider using a separate area where anybody receiving bad news isn’t on show to others. If a conversation has to be held remotely, are there privacy considerations that you need to take into account? Keep in mind the time of day and employees’ circumstances such as home schooling or carers’ routines. Don’t forget to stick to legal timetables too. For example, if your conversation is out of step with statutory collective consultation time limits this could trigger serious legal consequences.
DON’T: Be cruel by trying to be kind
It’s easy to feel under pressure and give false hope when you want to be kind. Equally, in expressing your own disappointment you might give the impression that redundancy, for example, is a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, this doesn’t serve the employer or the employee well. It could also lead to various legal liabilities (e.g. unfair dismissal claims or, in collective redundancy cases, protective awards). Always show compassion but try to avoid expressing your own personal opinions. Focus instead on the actual support that you are able to give to employees (e.g. outplacement for redundant employees or practical measures to ease an employee’s return to work from furlough by offering flexible hours or a phased return).
DO: Keep a record
It may be difficult to keep the flow of a conversation while making written notes or even just trying to keep a mental note of what has been said so, where appropriate, consider inviting somebody else to join and take a note for you. Ensuring there is an accurate record of the discussion, as well as a witness to exactly what was said, could help if there are any later disagreements or disputes. Thorough note-taking can also assist with any follow-up to your conversation such as sign-posting employees to appropriate resources (e.g. financial advisers or counselling if they need emotional support).
DON’T: Neglect ‘survivors’ who are struggling…. or yourself
As we move towards a post-lockdown world, there are likely to be ‘survivors’ who are struggling in the workplace for various reasons such as impaired physical or mental health, guilt at having escaped redundancy, personal problems or stress and anxiety over a heavier workload. Don’t hide from these conversations and be alert to employees’ need for support. Do you have mental health first aiders or an employee assistance programme that you can refer them to?
Aside from the employees’ that you work with or manage, don’t neglect yourself. In a time when we are surrounded by heroic acts in all walks of life, it is especially challenging to have difficult conversations or be ‘the bringer of bad news’ in our own day job. Ask for help from your own HR services or managers if you need support.
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