What happens if you are forced to shut down your business? After all those nights of too little sleep, the weight of knowing you are supporting all of those individuals and families who work for you, this feels awful and surreal.

You are not alone. This ‘what if’ is emerging fast and furious all around us. Here is some guidance, because contingency planning helps allay anxiety even if a possibility is remote. My team and I, with countless others in the HR profession, are here to help with that. We are with you!

What if you are forced to shut down your business? Firstly, you should approach this with an assumption that operations will resume ‘as normal’. You will estimate an date to communicate. It’s the best you can do and will help your employees get through this with a bit more hope. It will also keep your communications as concrete, clear and helpful as they can be.

Step by step, the following is an action plan you can tailor as needed. The first step, directly below, is one you can and should probably take now, regardless of how imminent a furlough or other significant measures may seem to be.

1. Now:

Identify your key employees. These are the ones you couldn’t do without, for various reasons. Your Office Manager. The one your clients especially love. Your rare and essential Subject Matter Expert. The team you would assemble if you needed to form a skeleton crew to keep the basics going. Tell them something like the following:

  • I know the ground is shaking and everything as we know it is affected.
  • You are such an essential part of this business getting through these times.
  • Whatever comes, know how valuable you are to us and how much we appreciate you.
  • Know we will do everything we can to keep you and the others safe (health-wise and financially) throughout this ordeal.
  • I may lean on you extra, for the high caliber of what you contribute.
  • I have identified you as a key employee. This may mean different things at different times.
  • You are always an example to the others.
  • Please model calm, resilience and clarity. Come to me if you need anything.
  • You are natural leader who makes a difference. Others look up to you.
  • Thank you for everything you do. As circumstances continue to force changes to how we operate, I have all of these things at heart.

2. If a furlough becomes inevitable:

If all employees will be affected, proceed directly to the next steps.
If only some employees will be affected, be sure you select according to fair criteria: by objective performance levels, by role /position, etc. You must avoid appearing to ‘choose favorites’ or to seemingly base your decisions on discriminatory criteria.

3. Preparing your communication plan (you can start working on this anytime, ‘just in case’):


  1. Check current Federal law and provisions available to your employees. Check your State for the rules and assistance available. It’s also worth checking your County and City. New things are emerging daily on this front, for example in the following areas:
    • Unemployment insurance
      • Has your State waived the waiting period for benefits, or reduced it?
      • What is the url for filing a claim online?
      • Is there a minimum length of furlough that qualifies an employee for benefits? (If so, you will be estimating the end date accordingly).
    • Assistance programs
      • Food, etc
    • Legally-mandated safeguards
      • Eviction bans
      • Utility shut-off prohibitions
      • Etc.

Plan, Write & Engage Support

  1. Compose a letter, using the included template if you wish. When you announce something very impactful to an employee, they will likely not retain more than some of the basics of what you said. A letter will:
    • Give them something to refer to and ensure there is record of your ‘true’ message.
    • Enable them to ‘prove’ their status as necessary to obtain relevant assistance.
  2. Plan direct company assistance to employees, for the remainder of the day and the following, in filing claim(s) for assistance, etc.If possible, it’s extremely helpful to plan for a person who will be dedicated to helping employees file for assistance right away (or over a certain time period). Applying for unemployment insurance and any other available assistance can be an intimidating prospect and can add to anxiety. Have that person ‘test-drive’ how the process would work and then have them dedicated as guide and mentor for a given timeframe following your communication of the furlough. This can be anyone whom you trust and who exudes competence and a calming presence. If they will be directly inputting information, be sure they are already privy to pay rates and other sensitive information or have them sign a confidentiality agreement.If you have access to an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), you might be fortunate enough to have a counsellor join your meeting remotely, to introduce their service and how they are standing by to help. An EAP can really help an employee on many levels, including connecting them with available assistance in their local area. Some states (like NJ) have them for free, or you may have one in connection with an employee life insurance plan, for instance.

4. Communicating the News

If the unfortunate day comes, communicate an emergency meeting not more than 30 minutes to an hour ahead of time. Don’t keep your employees on pins & needles, which can provoke speculation and panic.

At the appointed time, gather your employees with a call-in option available, if relevant:

Get straight to the point. Below are sample talking points:

  • I have something very hard to tell you.
  • Effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on our business have reached a critical stage.
  • [Company] is no longer able to maintain our normal operations.
  • [If applicable] A skeleton crew has already been identified and communicated-to, who will help keep the basics of the company running.
  • The rest of you, very unfortunately, will be subject to a temporary furlough. This means that you will not be working for a period of time that I’m estimating at about [2 weeks? 1 month?].
  • We will be giving each of you a letter that outlines what I’m telling you.
  • We will update you as things change. At best, this timeframe will last through [date].
  • You will be paid through the end of [the day? The week?]
  • Whatever comes, please know how valuable you are to me and to this business, and how much I appreciate you.
  • Know that I will do everything I can to help keep you and the others safe (health-wise and financially) throughout this ordeal.
  • Again, I’m so very sorry about this.
  • Know that as things continue to force changes to how we operate, you are my greatest concern.
  • [If applicable, say what helpers you’ve lined up] are standing by to help you. [Describe their role(s) and then have them introduce themselves].

5. After Communicating the News

Once you’ve communicated the news, there are a number of likely reactions. From stunned silence to panicky rapid-fire questions and comments, to emotional outbursts, make sure you have the support you need to navigate this and to stay calm and steady in the face of those. Don’t them out if you can stay open and present – the human connection is so very important and helpful in these times.

From the community of HR professionals: thank you for your courageous work as business owners and leaders. Thank you for what you do. We are here for you!