Recently while reading an article, I underwent multiple emotions from disbelief to shock and finally to disgust. The article narrated the story of company which sent a communication to a few hundred employees to attend an online talk on Covid 19. When the employees logged in, they could see a slide that simply read “Covid 19”. After 15 mins a junior member of HR team logged in and said one sentence- “Due to Covid 19 you are fired” and logged off the call. 

I tried to put myself in the employees’ shoes and gauge the emotions which could be going through their minds during the wait and post the one sentence firing. From despondency to depression, all of us have been in the grip of a range of emotions over the last one year that has led us to being emotionally and psychologically drained. Whether it is anxiety about present and future income or about how our loved ones are going to be impacted by the pandemic there is an undercurrent of uneasiness in the environment which is palpable.

As human beings, we crave for certainty and order in our lives, which mostly leads to our need for more and more information. To be asked to leave their jobs without any information about notice period details, severance pay, outplacement support or benefits continuation must have been like being set adrift in a stormy sea with no lifejacket.

The way the company chose to communicate this news through a junior HR team member said much more about the leadership of the company than its website, the vision document or the values described in the employee handbook. 

Leadership is what is experienced by others and not what is talked about in various company documents. 

The incident made it clear that the company leadership lacked empathy, a critical, but oft undervalued competency. 

My discomfort was less with the decision of asking people to leave and more with the way it was done, with no respect shown to employees. We often come across a notion that a Leader can rally people around with charisma and drive.  Empathy is not something which comes to our mind when we think of leaders. However, I feel that it is the most critical competency to be a great leader as leadership is about leading people and you cannot lead people if you do not understand what they are feeling and going through.

It is a tough time for business and tough decisions need to be taken. So, if tough decision means that a leader must ask people to leave, then it needs to be done.  The question is, how do you communicate this decision to the affected team member?

As business owners, many of my SME clients have sought my suggestion on how to handle a situation of having to cut work force. So here are few suggestions on what the leader should do: 

  1. The first thing is to communicate in a transparent manner. Let the employees know the real situation and as far as cash flows are concerned and try to find a solution jointly. In case, you feel that the junior members of the team lack the maturity to contribute to the decision making, call the mid and senior level employees for this session.
  2. Look at layoffs as the last option. Is it possible to cut pay by 30% rather than asking 30% of the team to leave?
  3. If lay-offs must be done, the senior most leader in the company should make the communication. Give reasons, provide information about notice period, severance pay, possible time by when re-hire may be possible, outplacement support etc. Please take their questions and answer them to the best of your ability. If people get abusive or vent, have the humility to accept that without showing any anger or discomfort. 

I was told long time back by my senior in the army “People don’t remember what you told them, but they never forget how you made them feel”. If you as a leader make the people feel humiliated, small, and not valued, they will remember it for the rest of their lives. And they will talk about it to friends, acquaintances and anyone who would care to listen. And in today’s hyperconnected world, they would also post it on social media, making an irreparable dent in your reputation as a Leader and along with it long-term damage to the ability of your organization to attract talent in future.  

As business leaders, as we go through these tough times, in addition to all the other leadership competencies which you will have to exhibit to get your company and your people through, it may be prudent to focus much more on Empathy, to ensure that the people in your organization experience you as a humane and caring leader.

RAJIV MISRA

R Square Consulting