Insight article

Why the internet can’t replace difficult conversations

In 2002, my brother joined the army as an officer after graduating from university with an MA and then passing out of Sandhurst. After passing out he was immediately sent on active duty, and has since served, in various roles, for almost a decade. His original commission is now up and he is waiting today to find out whether he still has a job. He will find out from a website.

In so many ways the web has made life easier in the 21st century: creating business opportunities, internet shopping, keeping in touch with distant friends and family, sharing photos, democratising the media… and replacing difficult conversations with impersonal electronic communication.

Nobody wants to have to tell someone they no longer have a job.  That's hard.  And, right before Christmas, isn't great timing.  But, come on!  It has to be done by a person and not through a website or an email.  That is unacceptable and it's lazy.

We all know that public spending cuts are going to be painful and are likely to result in public sector redundancies across the board.  That being the case managers in the public sector need to know how to communicate both with those who are staying and those who aren't, in human and respectful ways.  There is no quicker way to lose the trust and effort of employees than to treat colleagues as if they are simply assets on a spreadsheet.  And there's no quicker way to undermine the credibility of leaders than by bypassing them in the communication of such sensitive information.

Websites and email can be great tools for providing supporting information and advice, but it is vital that managers (in both public and private sector) have the communication skills and confidence to hold difficult conversations with their workforce.  If organisations are not willing to train leaders to talk honestly with their employees, then chances are those leaders are not managing difficult conversations around poor performance or career development effectively either.

I'm sure there's a very good legal excuse why my brother's announcement is being made through a website, but when we expect so much from our armed forces – and civil servants – we owe it to them to talk to them the old-fashioned, face-to-face way.

Nailia Tasseel