So, after an emotionally wrenching end of year, I stand in 2016 looking forward with excitement and interest. Last December, my employer declared their intention to relocate the Company HR service to Brisbane, Australia. That meant my leadership position in New Zealand was redundant. After a month and a bit of the usual discussions we parted company and I am in the job market again! A little unexpected, a little painful, but that is more or less natural. Also, very exciting, but more on that later.
So the whole situation got me thinking about times in the past I have overseen redundancies, and how they could be done better.
Leaving a position you love in a company you love because of a restructure, is hard; not least because there is no fault involved. Having someone or something to blame can give a (false) direction to frustration and context to any fear about the future. That’s the kind of place that if we go there, we should visit only briefly, and then move on from without a backward glance. Settling down there; mentally or emotionally taking up residence there, is a very bad idea.
With any kind of loss, comes a grieving process. For example, I lost colleagues, and a very nice job! When it makes business sense, and the process is respectful and dignified, and communications have been open and honest then I think the grieving process can be easier. When that doesn’t happen, or when it is even maliciously done, grieving can be a harder process.
As someone who has spend a great deal of time making others redundant in the course of my work, and seeking to meaningfully and positively assist with their transition out of employment, I have discovered that what employees need more than anything in such situations is their dignity, and to be treated with respect. More than anything – more than the reasons why, more than the opportunity to try change the company’s mind and possibly rescue their employment, people need their dignity. And with dignity and respect, in an amazing transaction, comes hope. When making people redundant, I have sought always to protect dignity and hope – both very fragile in clumsy corporate hands (its not personal, its business…) , and at the same time so powerful for the individual.
A person’s dignity is deeply fundamental to their self worth and as employers, moving those chess pieces about; restructuring and redeploying largely on the whim of executive management; we owe our employees at least that. We are tossing them out into the market place, after all, usually on 4 week’s notice, in a world where it can take anywhere from 8 weeks to 6 months or more to find work again. So we are guaranteeing most victims of a redundancy, at least a period of extreme financial hardship. Dignity and self worth can be the make or break factors in working through that, and be the difference between being the overcomer or the victim. Yes, its actually up to the individual, but stripping away their dignity and disrespecting them in the process is very unhelpful, even perhaps cynical, when it is in the company’s power to do either.
Interestingly, the laws in New Zealand (if followed, of course) provide exactly that. Having worked in 5 countries, they are among the better ones out there. The so called restrictions on the company’s freedom to act, are nothing more than the requirement to be decent and protect a vulnerable employee’s dignity. It is strange to me how so many employers, rally against that basic requirement and try ferret their way to a quicker or less consultative outcome.
I guess there are some situations where true colours are revealed, and this is one example. They say that one can measure the degree of civilisation a society has by the way they treat the defenceless in their midst (children, poor, elderly). I guess it is also possible to measure the actual values, the actual decency, the actual level of “civilisation” of an employer by exactly the same standard – how they treat the defenceless in their midst. And no-one is more defenceless – and undeserving of the situation – than the person selected for redundancy.
The true colours of an organisation are also the true colours of their leader/s. No-one in an organisation has a more profound impact on the culture of an organisation, than its decision makers and leaders. In my experience, many leaders don’t realise that when they seek to adjust the culture of their organisation, what they should be doing is adjusting their own behaviour FIRST, and making sure secondly, that the behaviour of every leader also adjusts accordingly.
Therefore, no-one has more of an impact on the dignity and self worth of a redundant employee, than the CEO; his or her behaviours, communications, attitudes and promises. Even if he delegates the redundancy talks and process to others, they will act as they are led to act.
The other thing that affects dignity is, interestingly, the sense of a legacy left behind. Employees work to achieve things, and there is a hope that when we are gone, what we have done will in some shape or form remain, and be valued. It gives meaning to the entire period of our employment. What can damage that, is another aspect of organisational culture; and that is whether departed employees are honoured or denigrated by the words spoken about them after they leave.
There is no need to speak negatively about the departed, in any shape or form, but frequently I have come across organisations that habitually, like the novel 1984, re-write their history so that those who are now gone are recast as being to blame for all sorts of stuff. They usually have a “no blame” culture (because that is the politically correct culture to have) but remaining employees, who are usually friends of the departed and socially still in contact, hear what is said about the ex-employee and can relay it to them. This affects their engagement as well, because they know, what happens to their colleagues, will likely happen to them. And because they then see their leader’s true colours.
Again, this starts and stops with the CEO and the kinds of conversations he or she permits or prevents. I have also worked for CEO’s who are very politically correct in public but rage like chained beasts in private. The problem is that private is never actually private. Office walls are thin, doors are accidentally not properly closed during a tirade, emails are forever, co-leaders may not share the views of the raging beast, and sometimes, last week’s confidant is next weeks departing employee.
The company, by dignifying and respecting its departing and departed employees, improves in the estimation of the remaining employees. They will see integrity, and goodwill, and will see real decency, not just the façade of decency. This creates loyalty. When a corporate owes an ex-employee nothing, but delivers respect and dignity to them in spite of that, they are well on their way to being a great work place. And their employees will say so.