The CEO of US mortgage company Better.com recently made the news for insensitively dismissing 900 staff in a single Zoom meeting. But being told your post is being made redundant is never a comfortable experience so it’s questionable whether there is a ‘best way’ when it comes to this difficult conversation. Here, Pearn Kandola’s Stuart Duff argues that if best practice is applied the discussion can be made less painful for both parties, even in the Covid world of remote working.
Being fired is one of the 10 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, with some offices closed, many employers who would ordinarily want to have these conversations in person will be unable to do so. With there being plenty of recent examples of public “firings gone bad”, the current climate poses a dilemma of how best to remotely approach such a challenging conversation.
Best practice for the ‘let go’ chat
Every piece of best practice in the HR handbook says that dismissals should be planned, clearly communicated, consultative and fair. If an employee is to be made redundant, they should be consulted at every stage of the decision process.
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. Letting employees go 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 facing many employers in the current climate is ensuring that these procedures are followed and communication is properly maintained when such a decision has to be taken remotely.
Options for remote dismissal
Having difficult conversations should, whenever possible, be face-to-face, because 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. But because the Covid pandemic has removed this option for the time being, what should employers do?
In partnership with Cisco, business psychologist firm Pearn Kandola 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.
Email is by far the most likely to create misunderstanding and conflict”
Using the phone provides greater clarity through hearing the tone of voice and being able to interact and question. There have also been studies that have underlined 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 deliver the message in an open, fair, and transparent way to another person.
While there is no tool that replaces the quality of being in the same room with someone, of the choices available, using video communication significantly reduces conflict and misunderstanding, while enhancing trust and engagement. To be clear, video is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings. Nor does it reduce the need to follow the necessary procedures. Even when done remotely, it’s vital that any dismissal 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, video is, by far, the most preferable means of communication.