How to Approach Tough Conversations during COVID-19

In this moment of global anxiety and fear, as we brace ourselves to read headlines or avoid them altogether, it’s important that we also be prepared to face the difficult conversations we need to have with the people around us in order to prioritize health and safety for all. There are some particular conversations that might be necessary to have with the person who works in your home, and you might feel awkward about that. Here are some of our tips on how to approach difficult conversations, and some specific conversation topics and starters that might be helpful.

Difficult Conversations: A General Approach

If you haven’t already seen our post about difficult conversations, you can read more here. Sometimes, the conversation is much more difficult in our mind than it is in reality, and just figuring out what to say first is key. And other times, the tension is real, the issue is a gnarly one, and getting through it takes humility and care. A few general tips are to make sure that your employee is being paid but not “on the clock” and expected to be working *during* the conversation, and to schedule regular check-ins so that you’re not putting too much pressure on any one conversation. Make sure that you schedule your conversation and don’t try to make it effortless or “quick.” Tough conversations take time, and they also build trust. So trust yourself, use our resources, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. You can find a helpful guide to general communication tips and tricks here.

Language Accessibility Concern

Many employers of domestic workers do not share a language in common. Perhaps you can ask someone to help with interpretation.

Coronavirus-Specific Conversation Topics & Starters

Do you and your employee have the same understanding of what social distancing means?

People are interpreting “social distancing” in a variety of ways. You may be cloistered in your house while your neighbors are visiting the playground or seeing friends from six feet away. If you have expectations about how the people who come into your home understand and practice social distancing, this is an important conversation to have. Here are some ways you can approach this topic:

  • “Can we check-in about social distancing? I want to make sure that we’re on the same page.”
  • “I’m curious about your approach to social distancing. Can we talk about whether we are doing similar or different things to promote public health?”

What hard choices is your employee having to make during this time?

Your employee might be losing clients, having to juggle childcare for their own family, or needing to arrange care for elders in their life. They might be falling behind on bills or missing loved ones who live far away. Everyone is experiencing heightened anxiety, and taking care of our mental health is crucial during hard times. Are you having conversations about how your employee is able to manage through this time, and are you able to support the needs that crop up? Is it possible that you are adding to the stress of your employee by asking them to make difficult or impossible choices? If so, can you reassess your asks to make sure that you’re not offering a false choice, like a choice between keeping a job and caring for their family? Here are some ways to broach this tough one.

  • “I want to check in with you about how our family can make sure you feel supported during the coronavirus outbreak. Can I help you feel supported? I can offer _____” (Things you can offer: help with finding additional clients, pay raise, additional paid time off, flexible working hours)
  • “I know this is a hard time for you and your family, just like it is for us. I wanted to know if you have any feedback about how we can make this time easier for you.”

How are you communicating your thoughts around what will happen if your community is asked to shelter in place?

You may be in a community that is already sheltering in place, or you may anticipate that coming soon. If you are already sheltering in place, have you talked with your employee about paid time off? Are they still reporting to work? If you are anticipating this eventuality, now is a great time to consider what is possible and how you will support your worker through what could become an even more difficult time for domestic workers like house cleaners, who will likely lose all of their work. Can you continue paying your house cleaner? What will you expect of a nanny or home care attendant? Are there other folks who come to your home? Here are a few potential conversation starters.

  • “It is possible that we will be asked to shelter in place. If that happens, I want to make sure that we’ve discussed ahead of time what will be possible for each of us.”
  • “I’d like to ask you if you’ve given some thought to the possibility that our community will be asked to shelter in place. I know that will change what our working relationship looks like, and I wanted to discuss that change.”

If you foresee not being able to continue employing the person who works in your home, how are you communicating that to your employee?

This is a time of uncertainty for all of us, and we likely won’t know the long-term implications of COVID-19 for a very long time. This is true in so many different areas, from education to economics, and we know that there might come a time when changing employment statuses in your household is required for you, your loved ones, or the person that works in your home. Being prepared, communicating with your employee, and developing clear ongoing expectations for what’s next can help ease the burden for both of you. Here’s how you might talk about that.

  • “I want to talk with you about the economic realities in our family, and make sure that I’m doing all I can to set you up for success in the event that our employment relationship has to change.”
  • “Things are uncertain for everyone right now, and I wanted to make sure you know what might be ahead for our family so that you can be best prepared too.”

If your employee foresees not being able to continue working, have you considered what continued support looks like?

Families are being impacted by coronavirus in so many ways. People are having to leave their jobs to care for families or because they aren’t able to work safely. It’s possible that your employee will have to stop working, and it’s also possible that this will mean catastrophic economic hardship. Since you are their employer, it’s important that you continue to be clear about the benefits of their job and the options going forward. Many service employees are collecting unemployment while on temporary leave while their business is closed, for example.

  • “Can we discuss ongoing possibilities for support in the event that you are not able to work?”
  • “The governor has announced a variety of emergency orders to help ensure that people are supported through this time. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to help talk through whether any might apply to you now or going forward.”

Are there other difficult conversations you’re hearing about or want us to cover? Reach out at!

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