How to Talk to Your People About Laying Them Off or Furloughing Them

Having written PTSD for Dummies, I know something about the topic and there is probably going to be a global case of PTSD after we all get through the Coronavirus pandemic… and we will.

However in the near term, millions of people are already in the midst of trauma from the fear of infection, possible death of a loved one or themselves and job loss.

I want to address the last topic – job loss – because I am asked in an increasing number of interviews about how to help your employees deal with that when you have to lay them off or furlough them.

If you want to be inspired and see a role model of addressing your people in a clear and authentic way, check out the following video from Marriott CEO, Arne Sorenson:

It’s no longer a shock to many workers that this will soon be happening to them. Some are anticipating it and doing their best to adjust before it hits them.

Unfortunately a large number of people who have not yet received the news are feeling like deer in the headlights. When that happens their minds are constricted and they may have trouble hearing anything other than they just lost their job.

If you’re a CEO or owner and you have to deliver the news, is there a way to make it less traumatic? Not just to those you have to tell it to, but to you, in having to do the telling.

One resource that I can’t talk about too highly is: Workarounds that Work: How to Conquer Anything That Stands in Your Way at Work by Russell Bishop. I have already referred to it in different contexts in other blogs I have put up since the Coronavirus pandemic has occurred.

In it there are five essential steps that Bishop lays out that I like because they fit together like lego blocks. I’ve discovered that anything that doesn’t fit together tightly creates cracks that are easy to fall through. Because the steps fit together so tightly in a lockstep manner, your very frightened employees may be able to comprehend and follow them.

If you have enough on your plate as the CEO or owner and this is too overwhelming (and traumatic) to you, have your HR person become well versed in the steps and have him/her be your “go to” person to go through them with employees you will be laying off or furloughing. You might even consider doing a training for all your employees because the steps will not only help them deal with job loss, they will help them – and you – deal with, as the subtitle says, “anything that stands in your way at work.”

In fact I am using that process currently and frequently with the CEOs I am coaching to help them more effectively deal with this crisis.

Here are Bishop’s steps. They are simple and easy to follow and because of that may be easier to explain and guide your workers through, in spite of their anxiety:

Step 1 – Own It: The Coronavirus is upon us and to deal with it as a country and company, businesses are closing down and laying off or furloughing people. It’s not a bad dream. It’s real. It’s not personal, it’s happening to many, many people.

Step 2 – Desired Outcome: Now what? Given that your employee(s) are going to lose their job for at least the near term future and even though the government might offer some short term relief, they’re going to need to find a way to bring in money to cover basic needs for themselves and their families.

Step 3 – Control: What you can do without needing anyone else to move towards that desired outcome. As the HR person, you can find out what the best and most accessible sources of money for your employees are and show them how they can access those. You can also listen to your employees and allow them to air their fears and worries and show them empathy and compassion in your conversations. That may cause them to cry, but you will be letting them cry vs. making them cry and if you allow it – as difficult as it will be for you – they will calm down and be able to listen to steps you will be telling them you and they can take (and they will never forget you for your kindness). You can also brainstorm with them what other things they can do that they have control over to bring in money, set themself up for another or next job including redoing their resume, learning new skills that make them more marketable. One of my favorite suggestions is to help them distill what their special abilities are and/or what special skills they could learn that companies already or will most urgently need as we move through and past this crisis.

Step 4 – Influence: What you can’t do, that you will need others to provide and a plan for influencing them. As the HR person, you will need to influence your CEO to empower you to find out whatever you need to in order to help workers you’ll be letting go make it through. You may also need to influence your CEO to do things that you discover that are in his/her control that can also help these workers that he/she is not aware of. And again, you can brainstorm with these workers about who they’ll need to influence to get through this. For instance, it might be helpful to bring in someone to speak to them about how they’re going to communicate with their families that they have lost their job.

Step 5 – Response-ability: How will you as the HR person follow through with action after you have gone through steps 1-4. And finally, brainstorm with your workers how they will do the same thing.

Do yourself a favor. Get Russell Bishop’s book. You won’t regret it.

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