Communicating with Candour and Compassion

I have spent the last few weeks working with employers whose businesses have been disrupted by the COVID-19 virus. Invariably, these employers have been shocked by the sudden and acute disruption, and the decisions they face as a result. These choices have also fluctuated, with different government programs becoming announced every few days, and then refined over time.

In addition to the decisions they choose, is the challenging issue of how to communicate those decisions to employees, particularly when the decision is to terminate the employee’s employment or attempt a temporary layoff.

Employers have long owed an obligation to be candid, honest, reasonable and forthright with employees regarding termination of employment. These obligations flow from the recognition that:

Work is one of the most fundamental aspects in a person’s life, providing the individual with a means of financial support and, as importantly, a contributory role in society.  A person’s employment is an essential component of his or her sense of identity, self-worth and emotional well-being.

Now, more than ever, these principles and obligations should underlie every employee interaction. Employees are concerned about their own finances. It is well-known that many Canadians live paycheque to paycheque and can ill-afford income disruption. Employees are also concerned about their health.

Employers should consider the following practices:

  1. Keep current with government programs. Know what is available, both to employees and employers.
  2. Communicate frequently. Set up a channel of communication with employees, and use it. This is particularly important when employees are working remotely. If employees are working, set up a regular meeting time at least twice a week. If employees are not working, invite them to a weekly call, but do not compel them to attend. If they do not attend, consider a weekly email.
  3. Be compassionate: Make time to listen to employees’ fears and concerns. Be mindful of the employees’ personal positions.
  4. Be candid. This is not a time to refrain from speaking or to prioritize confidentiality. Silence breeds fear. More is more. This is the time to let employees know how the employer has been affected.
  5. Be complimentary. This is the time to let employees know how much they are valued. Let them know that the only reason layoffs or reduced hours are occurring is the COVID-19 crisis. Let them know they will be recalled/reinstated as soon as possible.
  6. Be educational: Help employees to navigate the world of EI, SUB, and CERB. Be their guide.
  7. If considering a temporary layoff or a reduction in hours, try to secure the employee’s agreement in advance.
  8. Communicate information one-on-one. Even if conducting a mass layoff or termination of employment, take the time to speak with each affected employee individually.
  9. Be cordial. Maintain cordial relations during the layoff or period of reduced work.
  10. Re-offer employment as soon as possible.