I sat in a meeting earlier this week and I heard a conversation play out between an employer and their former employee who was made redundant as a result of COVID-19.It was a conversation I have heard many times before, not just as a result of the pandemic but as part of the numerous summaries given around how an employment relationship had broken down.
The employee was talking about how they had dedicated more than 10 years of their life to the company, how they had been considered the office mother, been there when the employer suffered personal loss, how the employer had been to her home and shared meals with her family – and now she was suddenly made redundant and everything that had been a part of her for the last decade had been ruthlessly stripped from her. She felt disrespected, betrayed and unvalued. It was not fair.
The employer expressed that he didn’t have any choice, that no one foresaw the impact of COVID-19 and when the country went into lockdown the work coming in the door just stopped. If he hadn’t taken urgent and definitive action, the business would be gone and all he would have left would be immense debt and no way to trade out of it. It wasn’t personal.
It’s clear that businesses and the people who work for them are frequently speaking different languages. Most of the time it doesn’t matter that employers and employees don’t perceive the relationship the same as each other, as long as everyone does the work they are there to do. But when something goes wrong, the assumptions about what is understood and expected between each other can create or exacerbate hurt and damage.
Workers who have never needed to understand the complexities of running a business define their world by the day-to-day relationships and small familiarities that build up over time, and often personal life and the provision of labour become understandably blurred.
Employers often don’t share business needs and indicators, or what they mean, with their staff- because why would they need to know?
The difficulty comes when one affects the other, and the two parties can’t communicate well because they’re talking past each other. One is often saying ‘cashflow, debtors, insufficient pipeline” and the other is saying “sweat, loyalty, family”. It’s business vs identity.
Employers should learn from COVID-19. What we communicate to our employees, and how, should not just be about expectations and relationships but also about what it is to be in business, what it takes to stay in business and what you think about as a business leader.
Leaders should also listen and understand how their employees see their place in the business, how they understand their contribution and what they expect from them.
Ongoing and open communication should help to build a bridge across the gulf when difficult situations arise.
Written by Anna Jones, Chief Executive Officer and Director.