April 9, 2020
Remember: This Is a Health and Human Crisis Above All
How to communicate difficult news with empathy and grace
As professional services organizations navigate one of the most fluid and uncertain health and economic crises of our lifetime, firm leaders face a multitude of complex and interconnected issues around their most precious commodity: their talent.
Given the pandemic’s impact on virtually every business and industry, from neighborhood coffee shops to global conglomerates, professional services organizations – trailing indicators of the macro economy – are exploring all options to preserve cash and bolster their financial positions.
Some of those options are the same as in any sudden downturn. But in this case, firm leaders must also grapple with the fact that this is a health and human crisis – not just a financial one. It’s not only their coworker’s livelihoods at stake – it’s their lives.
So unfortunately, looking back to learn from previous downturns has limited utility. Those in the trenches during the dot-com crash of 2000, the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 or the great recession of 2007-2009 know the conversation around staff reductions today is much different.
Further complicating matters, mental health and wellness were major issues before COVID-19 kicked professional anxiety into a new gear – and firms are reluctant to part ways with talent whom they may want to rehire in a few months’ time.
While every firm’s situation and circumstances are different, so too are the considerations for reducing professional and staff-related costs – and, equally important, the process for communicating those decisions.
Whether you’ve already communicated the measures your firm has taken to reduce staff-related costs or are in the midst of advising leadership on how to communicate an imminent move, it’s worth reiterating: this is a health and human crisis. Before you say or do anything, consider how your actions might be perceived by those who are suffering or close to those suffering.
Here are additional points to keep in mind when communicating with internal and external audiences:
(1) Don’t be afraid to share what you learned from the past or how this is different
- Professional services firm leaders we’ve spoken to have acknowledged mistakes they made during the 2007-2009 financial crisis. They should acknowledge those to their teams as well – and show how those lessons are informing decisions this time around.
- Still, no one was prepared for this type of event and we’re all learning as we go. Humility signals authenticity and breeds trust.
(2) Prepare your leaders to be in front
- Leaders can provide vision, hope and inspiration during a time of crisis. Help them seize the moment by openly, regularly expressing empathy with the needs and concerns of different stakeholders.
- Embrace transparency around the business impact of the crisis and the steps your firm is taking – and pivots you’re making – to successfully maneuver through it.
(3) Remember that prospective talent remains an important stakeholder
- Current employees are the priority. But remember that you were in a pitched battle for talent leading up to the crisis – and you could be again soon. So be sure that your vision and values are clear in every single communication.
- Emphasize the steps your firm is taking to preserve its financial strength and resilience.
(4) Stress a “leaders eat last” message
- Now is not the time to be modest; if leaders and owners are making sacrifices to bolster their firms, that should be communicated to all employees.
(5) Be up front about hard staffing decisions
- Be clear and coherent with impacted employees. The right thing is to treat them with compassion; if they are, they’ll tell others – their friends in the company and even prospective employees.
- If your firm can provide severance, make sure to let employees know that you did. While providing details surrounding severance packages may not be your organization’s norm, this crisis is different. Transparency now will pay dividends later.
It’s worth repeating our central theme – this crisis is about people, not numbers. Professional services firms need to keep this front and center in their decision-making when it comes to communications or otherwise.