I was made redundant yesterday. Several times, actually. As part of a redundancy consultation training session for a client, we ran a series of role plays where unsuspecting managers were faced with some not wholly implausible human behaviours.  I played an employee brought to tears by the at-risk letter and announced mid-way through the first consultation meeting that I was pregnant. One of my colleagues played a silent employee who said nothing at all and appeared to be in the midst of a mental breakdown, and the other played Mr V. Angry, armed with a list of queries and half-comprehended snippets of legal advice he had clearly gleaned from Google.  Between us, every manager’s nightmare.

This was not an attempt to make light of a difficult situation.  A redundancy consultation meeting is not easy for anyone. Delivering the message that someone is at risk of redundancy is hard, and delivering it to someone who is tearful and emotional, unresponsive or puce with rage (it was quite a performance) is harder still. Needless to say, the impact upon the individual receiving that message can be catastrophic. 

So what did I learn? Even though I was merely acting, I was so het up that I genuinely only heard snippets of what the gentleman opposite me was saying.  Even though in leading the consultation meeting he was reassuring, kind and professional, no matter how many times I was told that this was merely a proposal at this stage, I genuinely couldn’t hear past the word “redundancy”.  And that was as an employment lawyer and purely acting!

Where employees do become stressed or distressed or silent in such a meeting, great care needs to be taken to ensure that they understand what has (and often as importantly, has not) just happened.  It is too easy for them to hear the R-word and then mentally shut down, extrapolating forward in an instant to their mortgage, the school fees, credit card repayments, unemployment, divorce and homelessness while whatever it is that you are saying becomes just background noise.  So take it gently.  Repeat the key points as often as you need – that no final decision has been made, that scope for redeployment may exist or (at a pinch) that there will be a financial cushion available.  It is a brutal business which nothing can make painless, but do try not to let your own understandable anxieties as “downsizing envoy” (an Acas phrase of teeth-grinding awfulness, sorry) lead you to lose focus on what is being heard or digested by the employee.  This may be either very much less or very much more than the words you actually use and it will often pay just to check his or her understanding before the meeting wraps up. 

That way perhaps someone like me, but really crying and really pregnant, will one day be very grateful to you.