”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.
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.”
The repercussions of lockdown and the continuing threat of Coronavirus has badly affected UK businesses. Thousands of UK employers have drawn up plans to make redundancies over the next 12 months.
Redundancy can have fantastically positive outcomes. It can be a great opportunity to find alternative ways of making a living: move abroad, recalibrate goals that reflect your current values, improve work/life balance. It can be encouraging to try out any or all of these things. It can be 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 much of a shock.
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
Keep things clear, direct and to the point.
Assume that they won’t be able to take it all in.
Tell them that you will be sending a follow up letter outlining next steps.
Ask them to come back to you with any questions, no need to wait till the next meeting.
The individual consultations should only take 10-15 minutes.
What makes a manager a positive example of bad news broken well?
- Be authoritative.
- Take charge of the news and be confident of the outcome.
- Do not make it about you – “I feel so awful having to tell you this, it is the worst day of my life” is overly dramatic.
- Show respect and confidence in their capacity to handle bad news.
- Recognise that what you have to say will come as a shock – however much expected – so kept the information simple and straightforward.
- Do not patronise – this may have been routine for you but be aware it is traumatic for them to hear.
- Keep lines of communication open so that when there is a need for information, it can be supplied.
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 an easily understood 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.
- 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 sync’ 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 – 10-15 minutes is said to be enough.
- 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?