How to have career conversations in the shadow of Covid-19

Back in the halcyon days of 2019, before coronavirus was on our radar; before social distancing, lockdown and Houseparty became common reference points; we all knew what difficult career conversations looked like:

  • ‘I want a promotion’
  • ‘I want to go part-time’
  • ‘I want a pay rise’
  • ‘I’m thinking of leaving unless…’

In the world of remote working, jobs being furloughed, and the threat of being laid off feeling very real for many, it seems as though there a whole new set of difficult career conversations to be had:

  • ‘I don’t want to be furloughed’
  • ‘I do want to be furloughed so I can cope with my sudden carer responsibilities’
  • ‘I can’t manage the eight hour days that my childless colleagues are putting in’
  • ‘I’m working harder than everyone else on the team because I don’t have children and I deserve my rewards.’
  • ‘This situation is making me rethink my career/life.’

The good news is that, no matter what situation you find yourself in, if you need to have a difficult career conversation, the rules are the same:

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

We are all highly self-focused. That goes for us, our staff, and our leaders. As such, your manager is much less likely to have spent time thinking about your salary/flexible working arrangement/career than you have. For this reason, you cannot expect that your manager will always be thinking of whether you’re in the optimal position, at the right salary. You need to do some of that work for them. It means that you need to be prepared to ask for what you want. So, work out what it is that you do want. And when you’re clear, write it down in one clear sentence. The sort of sentence that you would be able to open an online meeting with.

Legitimate your request

Requests for changes in salaries and working arrangements are far more likely to be granted if you are able to legitimate them. That means, providing evidence of why what you’re asking for is reasonable. That could be demonstrating that other departments or similar companies have a similar arrangement at the moment. Or it could be demonstrating that it fits in with, for example, a company’s long-term policy to take great care of its workforce. It may be somewhat harder to do your research in this circumstance than in a normal career conversation: Government information is still quite vague in places (at date of writing) and it may not be clear what competitors and other departments are doing. The internet may not be as up to date or informative as it is when information has had time to settle. As such, you may need to do some old-fashioned super-sleuthing, by calling and emailing people you know who may have more information than you on this topic.

You should be able to compile a set of reasons that you can clearly articulate as to why your request should be seen as legitimate. Now you’re ready to schedule a meeting.

Get the conversation booked in

When you book in a meeting, it’s a good idea to give your boss a clue as to what you want to discuss. Be prepared, however, that this may lead to them trying to dodge out of the call (‘things are crazy at the moment’ is a frustratingly prevalent phrase right now). Or, it might lead them to wanting to have the conversation right now. And that is the reason why you’ve already written down your clearly articulated sentence about what you want, and your reasons that legitimate your request.

Assuming that your boss is happy to wait, then book in some time and take five to ten minutes before the meeting to look over your notes and settle yourself in to the topic. There’s plenty of advice out there at the moment about getting into the right headspace.

Be confident and assertive – but nice

The great thing about an online meeting is that you can consult your notes regularly and ruthlessly. Tack them to the wall in front of you if you can, so your boss can’t see them, but you clearly can. Smile, speak slowly, and remember to check in with your own image.

Another advantage of online meetings are that you can see yourself so you can check that your body language looks confident, but nice. Confident but nice is the right combination for this situation: you’re showing that you believe in what you’re asking for, but that you’re not feeling hostile about it. Hostility in such a circumstance suggests that you are expecting someone to say no. Hopefully you’ll already have a good relationship and will be able to rely on personal appeal to get what you want.

Remember, when you’ve finished stating what you would like, to leave a pause. You don’t have to lay out your reasons instantly; see how your boss is responding to what you’re saying. You might find you don’t need to lay out all of your reasons as they may already be thinking the same. If they seem to need convincing, now is the time to lay out your reasons, one by one, with the most important first. Give them time to process them, and if it seems as though the signal has been weak or the call is stuttering, then check they’ve properly heard what you’re saying.

Should you tap into values & emotions?

There is reasonable evidence to suggest that, when you are looking for someone to commit to a new course of action, appealing to their values and emotions can be effective. However, think carefully about the wording, as it will need to something that speaks to your boss’ values and emotions, and seems natural coming from your mouth. It may be hard to script such a moment, but having your mind on the possibility of using one, if an opportunity is to show up, could be good.

For example, your boss may have recently said to you that she and her partner are struggling to provide shared childcare and both work. You may be able to say, ‘I know this is an unconventional request to actually want to be furloughed, but these are unconventional times. My husband is a key worker, and we’re really having a hard time keeping everything together. I know you’ve experienced that first hand, too.’

Open into conversation

You will increase the likelihood that they will agree to your request if you make it feel as though they have been asked to participate in the decision making process. Ask them what they think. Ask them what they would do, if they were you. Ask them whether they are able to help. Using the word ‘we’ can be very effective in this context, too. ‘Can we talk through this from your perspective, so I can understand the impact on the team?’ ‘Our team are so tight-knit, it’s obviously going to be a difficult decision for us to make.’

Should you do it?

It can feel, at the moment, a bit like everything is on hold. If there is a career decision that cannot wait, and that needs to be made in order for you to feel as though you can move on and cope with this period of strangeness, then you need to have that conversation. If it’s something more peripheral that is not affecting your day-to-day work, you may choose to hold off to alleviate the burden on your boss and HR. But you may, in that case, want to highlight to your boss that as and when things start to return to normal, you would like to pick up on this topic as it’s important to you. You may find that, by demonstrating care over the wider wellbeing of the team, that your boss is impressed and insists on the conversation now, or holds you in higher esteem for delaying.


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