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How HR Can Best Handle Delivering Hard News While Remote

April 3, 2020
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From time to time, we invite people leaders to share their ideas and insights with us. This piece comes to us from our guest HR contributor Nathalie McGrath, co-founder at The People Design House and former VP of People at Coinbase.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed nearly everything about the way we work and do business, and now this health emergency is also having a deep economic impact. As companies now have the unfortunate task of having to downsize or furlough their workforces while everyone is under stay-at-home orders, the way we deliver and how we deliver bad news needs to dramatically change. 

Any departure is a culture definition moment for you and your company. The way you handle this will reinforce what you care about and what you value. There’s no perfect way to do this, the most important thing is that it’s aligned with your culture and values. 

As HR leaders we obsess about the employee experience. We think about it as we recruit, onboard, and retain. It’s worth taking the time to plan and articulate the employee experience for the moment employees leave the company, as well. Valuing the employee experience during this time matters for both the folks leaving and the ones staying. Being intentional about the details of offboarding demonstrates that you’re willing to put time, energy, and resources toward people even when they are leaving the organization.

Given that these conversations will now happen remotely, let’s take a few minutes to discuss how this might impact an employee exit conversation, and how HR can help operationally and with messaging to make the conversation as helpful and humane as possible. 

Operations

One of the best ways to show your care about your employees is to think through all details, demonstrating that you thought about their experience. As a result, HR should treat any layoff as a big event, giving it significant planning and paying close attention to detail. 

Start by assigning a project manager (typically HR/People Ops/Chief of Staff) and a project team (legal, finance, etc) that meets daily leading up to the day of conversations to ensure decisions are made quickly and on time. The project manager is responsible for creating a day-of “run of show,” prepare scripts, FAQ sheets, track employee conversations, and problem-solve other issues that come up. 

When remote there are a few additional complexities that are important to consider and plan for:

  • When possible deliver the conversation in a 1:1 instead of a group. Turn on your video, show your face, and please use separate digital meeting rooms for each conversation. 
  • When delivering the conversation, make sure no one on the call is driving.  Make sure you’re in a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted.
  • Develop an IT plan and be sure to include this in your script during the conversation (for example: “you will no longer have access to your computer” OR “you will be able to use your computer but need to send it back by X date,” OR “you will be able to keep your laptop as part of your severance”).
  • Create a Slack channel for folks leading the conversations. This way they can ask questions, or let others know about status updates.
  • Create a plan for personal belongings that are in the office. 
  • If possible, have an HR representative on the call to provide detailed information, reinforcing that you’ve thought through all aspects of this process and can answer the questions they have.
  • End the day with a virtual All Hands, communicating what happened, why it happened, and express your appreciation for the folks who were affected.

Messaging

Messaging during this time is delicate; what you say and how you say it will set the tone for the organization. Today’s macro environment greatly influences the tone in which you show up with your employees. Only talking about the bottom line or how everyone will need to step it up without addressing the human and emotional aspect of the situation will lose credibility during this time. It’s important that what you communicate addresses both the emotional and business components of the situation.

For those who are delivering hard conversations, we recommend a few things:

  • Before the meeting ensure you or the manager delivering the message have read through the drafted script and FAQ sheet, and know how to answer questions that might come up.
  • Take a few deep breaths before the meeting — get centered and focused on what’s important. The goal is to be respectful and compassionate.
  • During the meeting, turn off all notifications and don’t look at your phone. Focus on the individual you’ll be talking to and their situation. How you show up during this conversation will influence their experience.
  • Talk through the script. Be calm, attentive, and confident. Answer the questions. And if there are questions you don’t know the answer to, let the individual know you’ll send an email to connect them to the correct person who does have the answer. 
  • Avoid apologizing, but don’t avoid listening. Reinforce your appreciation for the work they’ve done.

In addition to the conversations you’re having with folks that are departing you’ll also want to provide context for the employees still at your company. As an HR leader, you have an opportunity to guide the founder/leadership of the company to being thoughtful, human, approachable, and honest. But it takes effort.

First, it’s critical to get clear on what the organization will focus on in this time and how the team changes support that. Next, it’s important to ensure that your goals and OKRs are set up in alignment with this focus. Expect your team to question why these decisions were necessary, getting clear on the focus builds trust that your top priority is leading your company through this moment and towards the future.

It’s tempting to focus on motivating the team that survives cuts by using a “rallying cry” type of message. Instead, emphasizing that you understand the enormity of this current pandemic and the impact it has on everyone’s lives (not to mention team members who are parents or those who have family/friends who are with sick, etc.) will display to your team that you are not trying to make this moment about you or the bottom line.

Lastly, it’s not your job to promise that everything is going to be okay. You don’t know what the world is going to look like in 3, 6, or 12 months. It is your responsibility to share your vision for your company. Instead, share *how* you make your decisions instead of focusing on *what* every specific detail of those decisions are. 

We encourage you to let your employees know they can reach out to you, their manager or others to ensure they have the support they need. 

A few days after this happens will be the time to start setting new goals and strategy. So taking the time to let folks process, and to ensure you get this right is time well spent. Your people will remember and notice how you do this, so slow down if you need to. Things are constantly changing and it can be a difficult time, so let them know you’re  all in this together.