Communication in the wake of crisis: the need of the hour

This is probably the most difficult and challenging scenario allover the world; With the coronavirus having gripped over the world both literally and figuratively, the repercussions are here to stay even after the curve flattens completely and proceeds to slope downward.


The world’s most developed economies are also not an exception to the economic shock with organizations resorting to closure of business units for an indefinite time period, reduced work -timings ( first sign of a pay-cut), salary-cut on an instalment basis, and even contract cancellation ( both existing and future) to name a few. The situation is inevitable and these measures have either been taken in view of the future or would be the way forward depending on different business units and the economic ecosystem in which they exist.


However our subject of discussion today would be communication in the wake of a crisis as huge as this; we shall also look at handling and dealing with difficult forms of communication and a few suggestions on doing the same. This shall also focus not on the cognitive side alone but mainly on the emotional aspect of handling communication in such situations.


According to a recent Harvard article, ” Lay-offs have been termed as both emotionally and cognitively an overwhelming exercise”; what makes it so overwhelming, is the process of communication; line managers, team leaders and supervisors have to plan effectively on making communication realistic yet compassionate ;


People are already sensing the trend that may just unfold in the organization (not necessarily through a grape-vine network) , so how to make communication effective in a situation where job-cuts are inevitable?



Being realistic and clear yet setting the right context:

Briefly share the economic background and the repercussions that it shall have at an organizational level and how the growth prospects stand affected; this will set the right background against the proposed communication

An unequivocal yet compassionate tone:

” We do not have a positive news for you and owing to the inevitability of the situation we would like to inform you that we will not be working together from ……” . The purpose of the communication is to show realism but with a tone of solidarity for the people who have supported the organization until then.

Showing solidarity and respect for the people:

Every person who has supported the organization is valuable and it is difficult to bid good-bye ; so the communication has to highlight the message from the respective leader that ” we care about you and we are all affected albeit in different ways”;

Ensuring that the conversation is personal and appropriate:

A communication as serious as this should be a personal one-on -one conversation and not an open , cold or a direct communication; while it is necessary to show restraint in delivering the message, the atmosphere should be conducive to share the same and for the concerned employee to respond or share his/her thoughts and for him/her to be able to process the same.

Being responsive and receptive to the reaction :

This is an extremely important feature of communication in times of crisis; it is very important for the managers to make it clear and convey that ” we are 100% there with you at this juncture and that your emotions are justified”; showing empathy and handling the overwhelming reaction of the receiver is the most difficult responsibility for any supervisor; but your tone and your message makes all the difference;


"A classic example of how not"

I shall share a real experience through the lens of one of my friends’ colleagues (My friend herself has been taking a pay-cut); the colleague had joined the organization a little over 5 months ago; the colleague of my friend had come from India and had gotten this job based out of another country; he had cleared his interviews and moved with lots of hopes and dreams. Just 3 months down the line, little did anyone expect a pandemic to turn the entire world down and the protagonist in this story also was no exception; he had lot of financial commitments and had just settled down with his family there. All was going on fine and he was in-fact working until the very last day before the lockdown happened and the next day there was already a buzz surrounding possible pay cuts; there was no communication until then from anyone including his immediate supervisor; on the next day he gets to know from his colleague that they are closing down the business unit indefinitely and that no one will be reporting to work from the next day until further notice; on the same night he receives a message from another team-head (who was not his manager but the one whom he never met after his first day of orientation; the actual supervisor works from a different location and has met him only two weeks before the pandemic resurfaced); he was puzzled seeing the name of the sender; he responded to the message and was thinking about the call scheduled the next morning. He receives a call from the team-head who just said: “we are battling a major crisis and considering the future of our company, we would like to inform you that we would like to end your work contract; so i will send you the work termination letter to your address; please respond to the same”; the colleague was devastated; he understood about the likelihood of the job cut ( he was updated with the world news) but he was shocked to experience three things; the one who communicated the message was never his leader or had worked with him before ; her communication was plain cold, unempathetic and direct; also to make matters worse, his actual supervisor never really reached out to him. He had no choice but to end the call as it was useless sharing his thoughts to someone who just wanted to inform and nothing else. Just as he began wrapping his head around what was going on, three weeks after his loss of job, the actual supervisor calls him up and just starts the call with ” Hi, what’s up?, we are sorry because we had to cancel all new contracts”. This sure makes us cringe in disbelief looking at the sheer audacity and lack of sensitivity or basic understanding. The man just cut her call abruptly and told her that he was not interested in talking any further. In fact he had no idea that this was common for all the new-contract holders!!

The above story was shared in third person and i could not possibly know the accurate aspects; however it does give an insight into how should things never be done:

It is very important for the employee to make peace with the fact that you are at an extremely fragile position and have no choice but you have listened to him/her and not taken out your personal stress, you have pulled off the communication with the sincerity and emotional intelligence required. Restraint, good listening skills and timing are all key requisites for such forms of communication; Above all the major point is around “who should communicate”?: Unlike in the above story, the concerned line manager or team head should communicate and act sensibly realising the gravity of the situation;

There ought to be a lot of questions ranging from future to benefits to severance but it is okay to not make unrealistic or tall promises; all that is required for any people manager is to exercise transparency, compassion and solidarity in handling the same. You may just conclude with best wishes for the future and offer assistance wherever possible; the key is to “not make false promises and sugar-coat things” , but ” to convey, listen and offer the possible forms of assistance”.

This example maybe an outlier in the topic ” Art of communication in times of crisis”; but it makes us think, re-think and internalize the message that one should show compassion, understanding and clarity along with the right tone , context and ofcourse that the concerned manager is solely responsible to talk to the employee.


Sathya Sundaresan
HR Professional &  Life Coach.