”I have been made redundant before and it is a terrible blow; redundant is a rotten word because it makes you think you are useless.” Billy Connelly
Picture the scene. You are seated at your desk when there is a knock at the door. “Come in” you say. The staff member enters. Their face reflects their uncertainty. You tell them the bad news. The job they had for 10 years and thought was safe for the next 10 no longer exists.
15 years ago in the last economic downturn, my husband was made redundant. Three times in one year. Three times he was told out of the blue he was no longer required and escorted by security to the exit. He spent whole of the next year unemployed.
The shock of it and the brutality of how it was told changed him irrevocably and had far-reaching consequences for our lifestyle, our aspirations, our fortunes – and ultimately our relationship. I saw first hand a bright, intelligent, ambitious, cheerful man dwindle into a depressed, withdrawn, silent presence. Eventually the strain on our marriage was too much. It led to our divorce.
John Philpott, Chief Economist of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development predicts that the UK “is on the verge of a torrent of bad news” in regard to redundancies.
“The onset of recession is already putting jobs at risk, but many more are in the firing line as employers consider their next move in a fast deteriorating economic situation.”
In fact, according to research by the CIPD in conjunction with the management consultancy KPMG, a quarter of UK employers have drawn up plans to make redundancies over the next 12 months.
“Around a million jobs may be lost in all before the economy starts to recover and the next three months will be the worst for job losses since 1991,” warns the CIPD.
Redundancy can have fantastically positive outcomes. It can be a great opportunity to find alternative ways of making a living: move abroad, recalibrate goals in alignment with current values, improve work/life balance. It can be encouraging to try out any or all of these things. It can be amazingly stimulating and liberating.
However the chances that the staff member in front of you will believe that straight away are unlikely.
So how do you break the bad news with compassion, empathy and firmness?
How Not To Deliver The Bad News!
It helps if the members of staff have been kept informed of the changes so that the redundancy doesn’t come as a big shock – although with companies such as Woolworth’s and Waterford Wedgwood going into administration and even Toyota declaring its first ever deficit, it is more likely.
To withhold the news of redundancy can generate rumour that diminishes trust and confidence in management. It undermines morale in other members of the team or organisation. Consequently when someone being made redundant arrives in your office, they are already suspicious and defensive.
I’m sure that we have all heard of nightmare scenarios – like the manager who announced impending redundancies to his team only to discover his own notice of redundancy sitting on his desk.
And who can recover from the “Walk Of Shame”? Even influential people such newspaper and magazine editors are not immune from this searing experience. The victim clutches their cardboard box full of personal objects for all to witness as they are escorted to the door. The shuttered look, the avoidance of eye contact, the turning away of former colleagues. It is as though they have become the “Typhoid Mary” of the office.
Bad News Broken Well
One of the most memorable experiences of bad news broken well was when I accompanied my mother for outcome of tests on a breast lump.
The consultant surgeon greeted us warmly. She stood as we came in and smiled, inviting us to sit. She sat herself. She then leant forward with a serious look and said,” I’m afraid the tests have proved positive, Mrs McCloughry”. She paused to let the news sink in. She then outlined what would happen next. She kept pausing to allow us to absorb what she said and ask any questions. She went into detail about the positive outcomes we could hope for from what she was about to do.
She kept things clear, direct and to the point. She assumed we wouldn’t be able to take it all in so would be sending us a follow up letter outlining next steps. She asked us to ring her department if there were any questions. The interview took no longer than 10 minutes.
What made this encounter so significantly helpful as a positive example of bad news broken well?
- The consultant made us welcome.
- She was authoritative. She took charge of the news and she was confident of the outcome. My mother could trust that her health was in safe hands.
- She showed respect and confidence in my mother’s capacity to handle bad news.
- She recognised that what she had to say would come as a shock – however much expected – so kept the information simple and straightforward.
- At no time did we feel patronised – this may have been routine for her but she knew it was traumatic for us to hear.
- She kept the lines of communication open so that when there was a need for information, it would be supplied.
My mother made a successful recovery after her mastectomy. She had nothing but praise for how she had been dealt with. Throughout this stressful period she was confident she would recover, in no small part inspired by the initial interview with her consultant.
News of redundancy is as momentous and life changing – even when expected. Breaking the news insensitively will add to the trauma on both sides. Many report that it was not the loss of the job but the way it was handled which created most upset.
The news is unambiguous – the final decision has been made, and reasons for it must be delivered in a digestible way. And as importantly the person leaving your office will need to feel positive about their future and how they were treated.
When you are the chosen messenger, you would do well to prepare. The person needs you neither to be overly sympathetic nor too distant and chilly. Being firm yet empathetic will help if there are emotional outbursts. You are there to explain and to persuade them that the decision is reasonable – though any attempt to justify it defensively suggests a lack of confidence in it and trivialises the person’s distress at their loss.
So to prepare
- Ask yourself whether you are as relaxed as you can be. If you hold tension in your body and voice you will convey it and the other person is likely to feel tense and defensive in return. You may get a negative reaction where there need not have been.
- As with my mother’s interview with the consultant, encourage them to bring someone with them. When someone doesn’t want to hear something, they need a companion to remind them what was said since it can get forgotten in the heat of the moment – and of course legally they are entitled.
- Take charge of the news and set the pace of the interview at the outset.
- A tone of quiet certainty gives an impression of firmness and authority – use the major key (the black notes on the piano) and a deliberate delivery.
- To create rapport, gradually then match your pace with theirs – a good way to do so is to match the rhythm of their breathing. These feedback minimal clues to show you are ‘in synch’ with them. This is especially reassuring when the other person is going through a stressful time. It tells them you are safe to be with. If these signs show evidence of stress, then gradually alter your pace back to relax you both.
- Is the other person using visual (I see, you seem, imagine etc), auditory (tune into, loud and clear, tell me…) or tactile (in touch with, I feel, get the vibe…) words in their speech? If so, do the same. Since you are communicating in their language, they will be especially relieved you are “talking their language”.
- Be clear on how you want to begin and end your interview and within human limits, keep to time – 10 minutes is said to be enough.
- Focus on delivering just three pieces of information. Any more will be too much. And factor in that you will need to give ‘reaction time’.
- Avoid arguments. Take ‘your sail out of their wind’ – allow their feelings without participating in them by getting defensive.
- The temptation is not to draw attention to feelings to avoid their distress. However in recognising and reflecting them back, you are showing that they are important to you.
- When someone is crying or generally distressed, whatever you say won’t be heard. The mistake is to talk above the distress. Keep silent and listen – it shows respect and allows reality to sink in. If necessary, take a break from the meeting and suggest they meet with you again the next day.
- This interview isn’t for your benefit – avoid indulging your own feelings by getting upset, angry, irritated. Save these for afterwards if necessary
The overt message you have for them to take away is that they are a valued member of staff – the company has not discarded them and that you have every confidence that this is an opportunity for them to find a fulfilling future. The underlying message is that both of you have been dignified and shown each other due respect. This will mean more than any amount of “spin” an advertising agency will muster.
After all, Billy Connelly may have found redundancy a bad experience – but if he had stayed in his job, would the world have known him now?
Executive Confident Voice Coaching
CSSD (1974), London Univ, member of the British Voice Association
With grateful thanks to Sue Ferguson of Options HR, Rod Cook of Biotech Personnel and Carolyne Wahlen of Gap HR for their advice.