Can remote redundancy conversations be sensitive and fair?


Video allows participants to maintain eye contact and creates a greater level of trust than a phone call
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With job losses continuing to hit the headlines, many employers are wrestling with the practical issues involving redundancy consultations, and how to conduct these in a sensitive way despite restrictions. Stuart Duff looks at the role of video in difficult conversations. 

Over the course of the next few months, as the government’s furlough scheme is wound down, redundancies will, sadly, begin to increase.

Redundancy is one of the ten most stressful life events and, for many, will have a lasting emotional and psychological impact. It represents a double whammy – the end of something familiar as well as the beginning of something unfamiliar – causing sadness at the sense of loss, alongside fear of the unknown ahead, both of which lead to anxiety and stress.

In the current climate though, with Covid-19 looming over us and a challenging landscape for jobseekers, it’s likely that these feelings will be exacerbated even further. To pose the question of redundancy right now requires sensitivity and a great deal of empathy.

It also requires some logistical consideration. With offices closed and social distancing measures still very much in place, many employers who would ordinarily want to have these conversations in person will be unable to do so. With there being plenty of publicised examples of “redundancies gone bad”, in which employers have used social media or texts to announce redundancy decisions, Covid-19 poses a real dilemma as to how best to approach such a challenging conversation.

Redundancy best practice

Every piece of best practice in the HR handbook says that redundancy should be planned, clearly communicated, consultative and fair. Wherever possible, employees who are considered for redundancy should be consulted at every stage.

This is, in part, to ensure that any decisions are informed and advised, but I suspect it is also to demonstrate respect and consideration to valued employees, and to listen to their concerns. Making redundancies is one of the most difficult decisions for an employer and the process of communication is likely to be uncomfortable. So, there is something important about listening, communicating and connecting with employees.

The challenge that Covid-19 poses many employers is ensuring that these procedures are followed and communication is properly maintained when such a decision has to be taken remotely.

Communication options

Having difficult conversations about redundancy should, whenever possible, be face-to-face, as this will build understanding, connection and empathy on both sides of the conversation. Being in a room with someone can reduce threat and create a sense of safety and openness between people. As recent events have removed this option for the time being though, what should employers do?

In partnership with Cisco, we looked at the impact of different communication methods on trust and effective leadership. Email is favoured as a form of communication by most people at work on the basis that it’s quick, convenient and doesn’t argue back.

It is, however, the worst option from an employee’s perspective, as it’s a blunt way to communicate a life-changing decision and is by far the most likely to create misunderstanding and conflict. It will create resentment and disappointment among staff who are leaving and, just as importantly, those who are staying. It also reflects discomfort on the side of the employer at knowing how and when to have difficult conversations with their employees.

Using the phone provides greater clarity through hearing tone of voice and being able to interact and question. There have also been studies underlining the importance of tone of voice in conveying intention, sincerity and politeness when delivering important and difficult messages.

The third option, video conference, provides some of the most precious and subtle cues to understanding each other and  most importantly  believing and trusting in what each other is saying.

Yes, getting eye contact right isn’t easy and it takes time to get used to seeing ourselves on a screen. But video allows us the opportunity to communicate with openness, sincerity and to respond to important body language cues. In difficult discussions, it will feel uncomfortable to look someone in the eye, and the level of emotional frustration and anger will be more visible, but it is essential to delivering the message in an open, fair and transparent way to another person.

Video is next best option

Covid-19 is forcing many leaders to question how they should approach the redundancy process. While there is no tool that replaces the quality of being in the same room with someone, of the choices available, my advice during these difficult circumstances would always be to use video communication. It significantly reduces conflict and misunderstanding, while enhancing trust and engagement.

To be clear though, video is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings. Once lockdown has eased to the extent that we can safely meet in person, I would always suggest that a discussion as significant as one regarding redundancy be held in person. Nor does video reduce the need to follow the necessary HR procedures. Even when done remotely, it’s vital that any redundancy decision be properly planned and consulted upon.

Whatever the nature of it though, if you find yourself hosting a challenging conversation that cannot take place in person, the bottom line is that video is, by far, the most preferable means of communication.

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