Tips for communicating with empathy during a restructure

Lynda Harris | April 23, 2024

A red heart with black lines inside it, representing lines of text. On a grey textured background with clouds.

Breaking bad news requires a balance of clarity and kindness. Image by Craig Christensen / Graphic Solutions

If you’re currently working through the difficult task of communicating with team members about possible job losses, know that the way you communicate makes a big difference to the mood and morale of your team. Things are uncertain. Emotions are high. People are worried.

It’s tempting to distance yourself behind a wall of stiff legal language and stick to the facts. Of course, you must follow process set out in employment law. But now is also the time to be clear, connected, and caring — both in person and in writing.

A cautionary tale

When a family member of mine went through a company restructure for financial reasons late last year, their experience was the exact opposite of ideal. Communications from their manager and the company owner were unexpected, cold, minimal, detached, and, frankly, distressing. A once positive work environment in their small team, that included the manager, became oddly strained and stressful.
When colleagues found out a week later, they were all shocked — then up in arms. Management communication with the team about the situation was similarly cold and not typical of the company’s usual style. Distrust was high. Within a few short weeks all of the team had quit with bad feelings toward the company.

The law + empathy = a better process

While recognising all of the inevitable feelings people will have during a restructure, it’s possible to do much better than the description above. The best tip of all is to keep being authentically you. Your people are used to a certain communication style from you — more than likely that’s friendly and conversational. Just normal everyday language. Keep it up. It’s perfectly possible to follow the law in a caring, respectful, and thoughtful way. Make that your goal.

Six empathy tips to sound more like you

These tips will help you sound more like you, even in the midst of a distressing process dictated by employment law.

1. Show you care

Remember you’re writing to a person — your team member. Even though your workplace situation has changed, your communications shouldn’t feel foreign or distant. You care. It’s ok to show it. Whether you’re putting together a slide presentation to the whole team, or preparing information and letters for individuals, a human-centred approach is everything.

Try doing a quick empathy map. This visual, inspired by Nielsen Norman Group, can prompt your thinking. It’s known as an ‘empathy map’.

A diagram of the empathy map. With a person in the centre and arrows pointing to text. Text says: user, says, thinks, does, feels.

Here’s an interpretation of an empathy map, inspired by Nielsen Norman Group. Image by Write

What will your team member say when they read your communication? Can you imagine what they’re thinking? How will they feel? What might they do?

Answering these questions before you begin writing will automatically guide your thinking and language. Embrace the fact that you feel keenly for the team members affected, and let that empathy imbue your writing with kindness. Those in roles not affected by proposed changes will appreciate the care shown to their teammates.

Read Nielsen Norman Group’s article on empathy mapping.

2. Consider likely questions to guide your content

Your empathy map will help you think about your team members’ likely questions. Let’s say you’re writing a restructuring proposal.

Your team member may have questions like these.

Or perhaps you’re writing a decision letter advising that a position is being disestablished. After reading that they have lost their position, what is your team member likely to be thinking and saying?

They may have questions like these.

Predict the likely questions and include content that will answer them. This will reduce the chance of confusion and rumour, and save you time in the long run.

3. Deliver your key message early

Beating around the bush isn’t helpful and can easily cause confusion. Your reader is usually well aware of the context and is waiting for the key message.

It’s kinder and more courteous to state that key message very clearly, early on.

Example of taking too long to state the key message the reader needs (decision letter)

I am writing in good faith to advise you of the well-considered decision of the committee charged with reviewing feedback on the proposed restructure that may have negatively impacted your role and consequent employment with the company.
Much time and effort went into our deliberations and we must thank the group managers for the time they spent reviewing the various responses and ensuring all was fair and in accordance with correct legal process. That was very important to us.
It has been decided, notwithstanding your excellent employment record to this point in time, that what was proposed must now eventuate.

The key message is in the last line and is still not really clear.

This is better

I am writing to let you know that the committee has carefully reviewed your feedback about the proposed restructure. Unfortunately, despite your excellent work history, the committee has decided to disestablish your position.

4. Organise your content in the best way for the reader

Even if you state your key message quickly, you need to go further and think about what your team member is likely to want to know next. Your content needs to satisfy legal requirements. Include that content and answer all likely questions. Use the most helpful order for your reader.

In a heightened emotional state, readers need even more consideration than usual.

5. Headline your key points — it’s a reader-friendly thing to do

Use clear and informative headings to guide your reader easily through your key messages.

Here are a few examples.

6. Use clear, familiar words

Using language that your team member may not understand will only cause distress and confusion. Unnecessarily formal language can also create an uncaring tone. You want connection, not distance. Even if you feel you must quote the law, or some formal source, make sure you explain it in everyday language.

When people are already worried, they are less likely to read properly. Take care with phrases that people may misunderstand.

A table that converts phrases from formal into clear language.

Take care with acronyms too, and always spell them out when you first use them.

More help

The Write Plain Language Standard has more guidance on effective, human-centred writing.

Download the Write Plain Language Standard

Download our free checklist How Human is your Writing

Write Online subscribers, don’t forget you have a useful set of videos on tone at your fingertips.

Watch the ‘How to Create the Right Tone’ series

Or just ask for a helping hand from one of our content specialists.

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