Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Yaneek Page | Stop communicating lay-offs via WhatsApp

Published:Sunday | May 24, 2020 | 12:22 AM

ADVISORY COLUMN: SMALL BUSINESS

As Jamaica grapples with the severe economic fallout triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses are struggling to find firm footing in these challenging and uncertain times.

In my last column, I shared that it will take years, not months, for most of the world, including Jamaica, to recover from the effects of the novel coronavirus global outbreak.

Since then, Manuela Goretti, the division chief for the Western Hemisphere Department of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, has projected that the country is expected to lag a year behind the projected recovery of the United States and therefore may not see economic rebound until the fiscal year 2022-2023.

Goretti, a 13-year veteran of the IMF who has held several positions with the Fund, including deputy chief, Office of Risk Management, made the revelation on May 18 at a virtual media briefing.

It is important to also note that the IMF has been criticised in some circles for being too optimistic in its projections. In fact, in April of this year, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva conceded that the Fund’s projections of global economic decline “may be actually a more optimistic picture than reality produces”.

All things considered, it is not surprising that some small businesses have resorted to staff lay-offs and temporary business closures in a bid to weather the financial storm facing their enterprises. While it is understandable that lay-offs may be inevitable, what is not acceptable is the callous manner in which some businesses have been conducting these lay-off exercises.

Some are not only callous but also in breach of the law and may irreparably damage the relationship between themselves and the employees they may wish to re-engage in the future, as well as those still employed to the business.

In recent times, I have received several messages and queries from members of the public about the efficacy and principle of being notified of lay-off or termination by employers via text on the WhatsApp messenger app. Here are three of the messages:

Message 1: “You are hereby notified that we are conducting another round of layoffs on Friday. Unfortunately due to deteriorating economic conditions you are being laid off from your job position and should not attend work effective immediately until otherwise notified. Kindly complete and submit your monthly report and submit to Ms ........ before 4 p.m. tomorrow. Failure to do so will result in non-payment of salary for May.”

Message 2: “Dear ........, due to the slowdown in business your service is no longer needed until August if and when we call you back to work.”

Message 3: “It is with deep regret that the shop will be closing this Friday until further notice in view of the government COVID measures. You will be notified by ........ when you should return to work. We wish you and your family the best in these times.”

In my view, it is grossly insensitive, unkind, and an act of cowardice to advise workers of such a critical change in their job status by way of WhatsApp messenger, particularly in light of the current frailty of the job market and the financial and health fears exacerbating the crisis.

Employers should also be mindful that these crude lay-offs and dismissals are a serious reputational risk since WhatsApp messages, emails, and other correspondence are easily shared to wider audiences within seconds in this digital age.

Best practice in the circumstances is a virtual meeting where you face and speak directly to valued team members and employees, followed by either an email enclosing the letter of termination or redundancy or lay-off. I am aware that the reality on the ground is that the crisis is stressful, the losses are staggering, employers are themselves frightened, and most small businesses lack the requisite talent and financial resources to establish an effective human resources department.

However, leadership requires grit in the most challenging times. Therefore, the difficulties faced should not preclude small businesses from consulting with human resources experts on best practices. It is more important than ever to show humanity and compassion when laying off employees, while also adhering to the letter of the law.

The Human Resources Management Association of Jamaica, HRMAJ, has a listing of some applicable labour laws and a database of professionals who can support organisations and businesses.

It took me under an hour of desktop research to identify four HR outsourcing and support professionals who provide consulting to small businesses and ascertain the applicable rates. Some of their services include providing guidance on lay-offs, termination, and redundancies; redundancy payment calculations; and drafting communications and letters to employees, and the costs for some of these services range from $3,500 to $45,000.

Some even provide coaching to small-business owners on how to host virtual meetings with their employees to gently, and with humanity, share difficult news.

At the very least, even if some employers can‘t afford to hire HR professionals to guide how they communicate difficult news, they should take inspiration from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s communication to staff about lay-offs, which is posted on the company’s website and has gone viral for its heartfelt compassion and completeness.

One love!

Yaneek Page is the program lead for Market Entry USA, a certified trainer in entrepreneurship, and creator and executive producer of The Innovators and Let’s Make Peace TV series.

yaneek.page@gmail.com