Letting staff go – a guide on what to do

As the world continues to battle COVID-19 employers everywhere are being forced to make difficult decisions ranging from letting staff go to standing them down until things dramatically improve. The harsh reality is for many businesses to survive these times, cutbacks of all types of investment or expenditure will be necessary. 

While times are undeniably tough, leaders are wise to recognise the importance of maintaining relationships based on trust and respect, not only with the people that are let go, but also those who remain. The extent to which staff who are stood down for example, remain engaged with and loyal to the business will be greatly influenced by their perceptions of how fair and compassionate leaders have been.   

Start by ensuring the decisions you reach are made with fair and reasonable consideration given to all of your options and the consequences for your people. While it’s important to make necessary decisions to ensure the financial viability of your business, if people perceive you to be taking unfair advantage of these times to, for example, ‘clear the decks’ of poor performers, you’ll struggle to maintain respect and engagement from the rest of your team. 

Communicate Well

While communication is always an essential tool in the leadership toolkit, through these times of great uncertainty and unprecedented rapid change, it matters more than ever. 

Proactively manage the awareness and perceptions of your team. Be up front with people about the circumstances in which it will become necessary to let people go and how those decisions will be reached. While it’s common for leaders to fear providing information too early and risk causing unnecessary fear, anxiety and disclosure of sensitive information, the reality is when there is a void of information people will typically make assumptions and draw their own conclusions any way. 

Be authentic and honestly share insight. Give your team the opportunity to understand the extent of the reality you are all facing. Be open to hearing your team’s ideas about how things could be done differently or how they can continue to make a valuable contribution through these times. 

Reasonable people understand that employers have limited capacity to control or change circumstances right now.  If given the opportunity to understand and contribute to your thinking before decisions that are potentially life changing for them, most people will respond gracefully. 

Keep Communicating

Maintain communication with every member of your team including those working from home, stood down or working reduced hours. Keep communicating with each person and your team as whole about why you have confidence in the future and the role you need them to play to make it happen. 

If the truth is that further redundancies are likely, help people to understand what needs to change to avoid those circumstances. Irrespective of how hard the fight might be to avoid that reality, you are better off focusing your team on what they can do rather than simply leaving them to wallow in the miserable reality that further job losses are looming.

Look out for those making tough decisions and delivering bad news

Be careful not to underestimate how stressful letting people go or standing them down can be for those who need to make the call and deliver the news. Of course, it’s logical to assume that the people who lose their jobs or certainty of income are likely to be stressed and deserve your compassion.  Some organisations however overlook the care HR staff and leaders implementing the decisions also need. 

Check in with these people and encourage them to seek the support they may need.  Apply the same rule to yourself and ensure you have the support you need to effectively process the emotions that for most of us are draining and a threat to our mental wellbeing.  Don’t be surprised if you or others struggle to have the strength you need to maintain composure and resilience.  What matters most is that you keep talking and exploring how you can support one another to get through. 

Karen Gately, founder of Corporate Dojo, is a leadership and people-management specialist. 

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