How leaders should talk about job insecurity during COVID-19

by | Apr 6, 2020

A guide to navigating the language around business and job insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis.

A friend of mine told me his boss has been existentially shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. One day into remote work, during a video conference, he addressed staff in a slovenly t-shirt and told them he wasn’t “the kind of man” who dealt well with being “locked up”. 

It caused staff to have feelings of anxiety and contempt, right at the same time the company was asking workers to take reduced hours and  pay.

It’s easy to see how this happened. In the last month panic, anger or sadness have caused a lot of us to do something we now regret. While this particular example is egregious, a lot of leaders and HR professionals feel they are trying to walk a tightrope when it comes to employee communication.

On the one hand, if the business is doing poorly, you want to reassure staff. Because job insecurity doesn’t just lead to employee disengagement, it can literally change personalities. At the same time, you can’t lie to staff as that carries its own risks.

HRM spoke to Susan Sadler CPHR, director of HR consultancy Red Wagon Workplace Solutions who has spent the last months talking clients through these very challenges. And, as vice-president of the Australian HR Institute’s South Australian State Council, she is  no stranger to advising other HR professionals, and asking them for advice.

This article is organised into seven sections:

  1. The basics
  2. Ripping off the bandaid
  3. When should your messaging change?
  4. Channels of communication
  5. Trust, and walking the talk
  6. Communication risks and psychological injuries
  7. Other employment law considerations

Look to the leadership team

Asked about her general advice to business leaders when it comes to insecure times, Sadler says: “I think you should be as transparent as you can while recognising there is a lot of uncertainty and things are changing every day. What concerns people the most is the unknown. The unknown about what the government is going to say, do and expect of us, but also the unknown of ‘do I have a job, do I have an income?’”

To overcome this, you have to talk about uncertainty in no uncertain terms.

“Communicating clearly and concisely even when you don’t have all the answers helps reduce uncertainty in people and builds trust in you as a leader.”

Sadler also says unprecedented times don’t really call for unprecedented actions.

“While the circumstances and reason for the crisis are something we haven’t experienced before, the principles around communicating during change is the same as what it would always normally be.”

One of those basic principles is making sure everyone is saying the same thing. You do not want a situation where managers are expressing more business doubts to their team than the company leader is. To avoid this, Sadler says it can be helpful to have a ‘single source of truth’ to which everyone with leadership responsibilities refers.

2. Ripping off the bandaid

To assess the leadership team, you should guide the CEO to:

  1. understand whether the leaders are accountable and responsible;
  2. be clear about whether the leadership is afraid to put disciplines in place when called for; and
  3. get a sense of any unnecessary, bureaucratic baggage.

If the leadership team isn’t accountable or responsible, isn’t putting disciplines in place, and isn’t streamlined, then it’s a good indication that the structure is not at fault.

Rather, the leadership team is not doing its job effectively.

As business author Ron Ashkenas wrote: “Most organisations can be made to work if leaders set the right goals, hold people accountable, streamline end-to-end processes, and put in place appropriate disciplines. In the absence of these (and other leadership actions) any structure can appear dysfunctional.”

The challenge for the new CEO is that the board may have a different view, because it is one step removed from seeing how senior leadership functions. If the new CEO plans to shake up the senior leadership team, ask for the evidence to support their plan. It isn’t just important from an HR perspective, it’s necessary if they are going to be supported by the board. HR can assist in this process, but make sure you provide all of the information, not just the evidence that supports their desired path.

One way you can do this is to help them assess the blockers in the organisation.

3. When should your messaging change

At some point your organisation might become more certain that workers will either have to lose hours, pay or be made redundant. So when should your communication change to reflect that? 

Sadler recommends keeping it unchanged until your certainty is ironclad. A growing sense of the moves you have to make is not the same as specific decisions. You don’t need your people to go on the exact journey you are.

“If you are already communicating authentically and transparently, I think your communication stays the same. If people are anxious about job security, they will notice a change in language. Think about how you are presenting as a leader or HR practitioner in remaining calm, clear and concise – and not speculative – in your communication.

“At the point where you believe there are going to be jobs affected, then you should start to enact your consultation processes. People will surprise you with how prepared they are to reduce hours in order to save jobs.”

She also says to handle the additional level of anxiety COVID-19 pushes on people, it’s good to have support networks in place, such as an employment assistance program.

When it comes to redundancies, there are specific challenges to communicating them in a time of required isolation. It’s a topic for a different article, but one general thought Sadler has for anyone who needs to talk to a worker about a job change – reduced hours or redundancy – is to remember where they are.

Normally people hear about job changes at work. They are surrounded by colleagues and can talk to management. They can commiserate, collect themselves and think about how they want to frame what has happened to their loved ones. In the current environment, their partners, children and parents could literally be sitting next to them when they find out.

“As soon as they start to get upset, everyone is going to know about it. We’ve got to be really aware of that change in circumstance.”

4. Channels of communication

With their workforces fracturing off into their individual homes, some businesses are panicked that the way they’ve chosen to communicate might be flawed. Sadler says they shouldn’t. There is only one key principle.

“It doesn’t matter how you stay engaged with people, so long as you are staying engaged. It doesn’t matter whether you use a telephone call to check-in, or messaging software such as Microsoft Teams or Slack – as long as you can keep on having the conversations that you normally would face-to-face.”

Where you do need to be at least a little concerned is around unintended consequences.

“There does need to be a degree of caution around privacy and the way we are encouraging them to engage. For example, don’t necessarily set up a Facebook group if your business has quite stringent social media guidelines. Because you could be conflicting with your policies. Or, if you do, you need to reset the expectations.”

She also offers a few other tips. You want to maintain open-door policies and employees support. Consider adopting an anonymous way for employees to talk about concerns or complaints. Digital communication is great, but it keeps records of everything. Giving workers the ability to reach out anonymously means they will not hold back on telling you something you need to know due to a fear of reprisal. Sadler, who runs an externally managed complaints and whistleblower service, recommends the chat component of Whispli.

She also says you should consider Q&A style pdfs on different company policies and positions regarding COVID-19. They are easier to understand and will help maintain a ‘single source of truth’.

5. Trust, and walking the talk

You could have the best comms team in the world, with expert writers and counsellors in every key role, but it wouldn’t matter if all those elegant words were betrayed by what you actually did.

Case in point, last week The Australian Financial Review reported on an increase in organisations ‘panic buying’ surveillance software. Worried about productivity when huge chunks of the workforce are working remotely, they want to track keystrokes and time on screen.

This could have the effect of scaring staff into thinking unproductive people are on the chopping block.

Sadler thinks surveillance software should be approached with caution. And not just because it’s a significant change to the workplace that could legally require consultation.

“It also doesn’t send a very good message to staff. You are really going to impact morale because you’re sending a message of ‘we don’t trust you’.

She understands the concerns around employee diligence – staff will o

She understands the concerns around employee diligence – staff will often be working alongside their partners and young children – but there are other ways to address that. She offers a quick three point strategy.

  1. Say to people, ‘We know  this is going to take some time to adjust to’.
  2. Set clear expectations around work as much as you can.
  3. Check-in with people to see how they are going.

“Most people want to do the right thing. If they know that they’re getting distracted by the four-year-old and they’re not managing to get their work done within working hours, they might try to get it done outside of working hours. Or they might turn around and say, ‘This isn’t working, can we come up with a different solution?’

“But this won’t happen if you don’t set expectations up front and you don’t give them support and trust. You have to adopt an attitude of letting them break the trust before you come down hard and start doing those punitive or ‘command and control’ type maneuvers.” 

6. Communication risks and psychological injuries

Consider this worst case scenario for communication. A manager pushes workers harder as they’ve been told the business is insecure and jobs are at risks. They repeatedly and severely harass staff into doing more, and criticise them for any complaints and say things like “don’t you want your job?”

It’s possible the organisation could be subject to a bullying claim and liable for any psychological injury that results from such behaviour. 

There are already signals that workers’ compensation claims will rise in the wake of the pandemic. The Brisbane Times reports that a rehabilitation provider has already seen a 17 per cent increase in mental health claims since mid-January.

“If your messaging is unclear and employees have a sense of uncertainty about what they are supposed to be doing at home or there is a regression to a ‘command and control’ type environment that they are not used to, we could potentially see an increase in such claims,” says Sadler.

Good communication isn’t just about trying to reap benefits, it’s also about risk management.

7. Other employment law considerations

When there is a crisis, sometimes people think the normal rules don’t apply. How can they be expected to follow procedure when everything is crumbling down around them?

“But the reality is that the rules in modern awards and enterprise agreements around consultation, worker representatives and genuine redundancy – those things still apply.”

The Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman have been adapting to COVID-19 conditions. The former has introduced changes to the Clerks – Private Sector, the Restaurant Industry and the Hospitality awards that allow for more flexibility when it comes to the workers under them. In varying forms in each award this include things such as:

  • The ability to give them tasks beyond their award, so long as it is safe and proper to do so.
  • The ability to direct them to take leave, including long service leave, with certain conditions.
  • The ability to offer a half pay, double duration form of annual leave.

(These are not complete details, please contact independent legal advice before you act. HRM will write more about them later this week when the decision to apply pandemic leave to the modern awards moves past the proposal stage.)

To Sadler’s point, most changes you would like to make to an employment relationship require consultation and often explicit agreement. So it’s not just best practice for employee relations, it’s also the law.

It’s a tough time for everyone. Organisations should not panic, but instead do everything they can before they reach for more drastic measures, says Sadler. And if you do have to do either, consider offering what you can to make their lives better. One example, can you afford to offer an employee who you are standing down more or a different kind of paid leave?

There’s a boxing saying that goes, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face’. The point of the aphorism is not that you shouldn’t have plans. It’s that our reaction to pain is often instinctual. Our emotions get the better of us and we don’t follow through on the actions we know are correct.

The whole world just got punched in the face. The challenge now is to react steadily, and communicate clearly.

This article first appeared on HRM online