Retrenching Staff Due to COVID-19: How to Do It Remotely With Sensitivity, Empathy, and Respect

Letting go of staff members is never an easy or pleasant task. But with the COVID-19 pandemic causing unprecedented levels of anxiety along with the isolation of minimal social contact, employers and HR Directors face a number of additional challenges. These include adapting retrenchment processes to a remote environment, and being mindful of the complex emotions staff members are experiencing in the wake of this global crisis.

For employees currently facing retrenchment, the typical stages of loss one would usually experience – such as sadness, fear, anger, and shock – will be heightened by the lack of in-person communication and the pre-existing stress of these turbulent times. What’s more, your employees are likely to have been feeling extremely stressed in the lead-up to your decision, with so much uncertainty around job security in the wake of the pandemic hanging heavily on their minds.

Despite the challenging circumstances, it’s crucial that you approach retrenchment with sensitivity and empathy, in order to minimise distress for your outgoing employees. To help you respond to the challenges of retrenching staff in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are some of the ways you can communicate your decision with care and respect.

1. Use video conferencing over a phone call or email

Telling an employee that they are out of a job over phone or email can feel a lot like the dreaded ‘breakup via text message’ of a doomed romantic relationship – it’s uncomfortable, impersonal, and far from the best-suited means of communication. But with self-isolation making face-to-face meetings a no-go, what’s the next best thing?

A video call can provide a little more comfort by offering a visual element that may help to make the employee feel more connected and engaged with you. Utilise the raft of available platforms (Zoom, Skype, and Facetime to name a few) and, if possible, always opt for this form of communication over an audio call or, worse still, an electronic message.

2. Don’t beat around the bush

Right now, your staff members are already on the highest state of alert for any signs of impending job losses. They are worried, anxious, and eager for some kind of certainty – even if that comes in the form of confirming the worst. What this means is, now is not the time for overdoing it on the small talk.

Once a decision has been made, your employee will appreciate you being clear, upfront and open about the situation. After all, as most of us know, the ‘waiting game’ is often the most unbearable part, so getting straight to the point with a clear, concrete answer will help avoid further frustration.

3. Clearly explain the reason behind your decision

With tensions running at an all-time high, it’s important to reassure retrenched employees that your decision is a result of the current global crisis and in no way a reflection of their capabilities or character. In other words, make it clear that this is not personal.

Explain the difficulties your organisation is facing, be specific about the impact that COVID-19 has had on your business, and be honest about the fact that you simply don’t know what the future holds (because right now, who does?). Your openness will help to reiterate that the decision to let the person go was a result of the unprecedented circumstances we are all facing and that you’re not trying to hide anything from them.

4. Answer questions and talk through concerns

Inevitably, your outgoing employee will have a range of queries and concerns, from wondering what happens next to enquiring about available support, such as outplacement services. It’s imperative you take the time to listen and answer their questions as best you can.

Remember, your retrenched staff member will be experiencing a raft of confusing and conflicting emotions, from panic to frustration to grief to confusion – so it’s important you are patient and understanding to avoid them feeling neglected or abandoned.

5. Talk about the future

The fact is, not a single one of us knows what the coming months will bring as a result of the global Coronavirus outbreak. But what we do know is, there will come a time when the world begins to return to normal, the financial markets start to pick up, and industries see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

When the crisis is over, you may well have a need to refill positions within your organisation. If so, reaching out to former employees can be a good solution that reduces onboarding costs and training time. You may want to raise this possibility with your outgoing staff member (without making any firm promises) and offer some hope that they could well be considered as an alumni employee.

6. Follow up and check in

Once you’ve communicated the impending retrenchment to your employee, it’s important to check in after a day or two to see how they’re feeling, address any emotional distress, and answer any new queries or concerns.

Now is the time to adapt your style to the preferred communication method of your outgoing employee – depending on how they’re feeling about the situation, they may not wish to appear on a video call and might prefer to speak over the phone or communicate over text or email. Be aware that their emotional state may impact the way they wish to communicate with you and be flexible to accommodate this.

7. Be mindful of your surviving staff

The emotional turmoil of job losses isn’t just experienced by the affected employees. Staff members who avoided the ‘chopping block’ will be facing their own complex emotions, including guilt, relief, and fear that their position will be next to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, this is not the best headspace to function or perform their jobs effectively.

By demonstrating that you’re treating outgoing employees with respect and dignity, you can help to reassure surviving staff members that they too will be treated well should the worst happen. Showing your commitment to supporting retrenched employees – such as by offering outplacement – will send a message that you are willing to uphold your brand values and act in an ethical manner at all times.

8. Offer outplacement support

Supporting a retrenched employee in their career transition journey is always important – but in these incredibly tough times, this support has become more critical than ever. Offering an outplacement program can provide retrenched staff members with much-needed support, training and guidance for the road ahead, providing a sense of clarity and reassurance while reducing the fear and uncertainty they feel about the future.

Unsure how to offer outplacement to self-isolating staff members? Career365’s affordable online outplacement programs – delivered via online training modules and video-based coaching – can be accessed from any location, at any time, on any device. By making it simple for retrenched employees to access top-quality outplacement, we help ensure every staff member receives the support they need during these challenging times.

If you need support or advice on outplacement services for retrenched employees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Career365 can help with fully online outplacement programs. For more information, visit www.career365.com.au

Greg Weiss has authored two books about career transitioning and is soon to release a third. He has deep expertise in outplacement and employee onboarding, and is the Founder of Career365 (formerly CareerSupport365) – a leading Australian employee transitioning firm, specialising in outplacement and employee onboarding.