This post kind of takes the last two redundancy-related posts, and regardless of jurisdiction and statutory requirements, offers some thoughts and ideas around what would make such a devastating process a bit more bearable, by offering the affected employees some dignity, hope and empathy, and showing the remaining employees the calibre of their leaders. Since the legal minimum requirements would be different depending on jurisdiction, I have take the best standards that I am aware of and been cognisant of those. This is not procedural advice, these are purely thoughts offered in pursuit of best practice, and to focus on the HEART aspect of leading with “head, heart and hands”.
It is my hope that these things become primary pursuits of a change leader in any change process. With these front and centre it is my hope that change processes can be accomplished with maximum dignity and respect for the affected employees, and as a result, achieve minimum fall out on the work place and employees that remain. Leadership credibility and trustworthiness would be enhanced as the “heart” of a good leader is revealed.
When a restructuring idea is first contemplated, it usually happens that engagement levels BY THE LEADERS start to shift. It is because (largely) of the bad news that they are responsible for creating, and leaders tend to subconsciously begin to disengage from the affected employee as a means of emotional self protection. It is understandable, but it is devastating. I can assure you, as a change agent, that every individual I have worked with can immediately sense this happening, and because it is unexplained, it creates massive fear and doubt.
How does it happen? Emails take longer to get answered, phone conversations get shorter or morph into missed calls and messages. The nature of calls changes. Skype gets used for text more than for voice. Courtesy inclusions change, different people get cc’d in, and generally the pattern of communication and inclusion in business activities undergoes a shift. Invitations to offer strategic input reduce, and in the worst case, critical or sensitive functions begin to be duplicated or distributed elsewhere.
The employee may not suspect a redundancy per se, but they do get the clear message that something is going badly wrong with their workplace relationships. This creates fear, confusion, disengagement, uncertainty, and gossip. That much uncertainty generally results in a need to find security, and employees tend to find it with each other.
So it is definitely not advisable for leaders to begin a personal disengagement process prior to the formal redundancy process. It may even feel difficult or weird, but don’t disengage in any way, until the process is underway formally.
So, if we aren’t sending subtle messages early, and “accidentally-on-purpose letting the cat out of the bag” how do we break this sudden news with dignity? Personally, I think the main goal must be to create space and time – as well as privacy, if they want it – for individuals to process things, and at the same time manage the rumour mill that will begin to come alive. This can be timing-based, as well as relationship-based.
We create dignity and respect, by when and how we talk to the individual, and by the way we present the big picture to everyone. Personally, I have never seen anything wrong with beginning the formal process privately with an employee, for example, by arranging a meeting off site, and late one afternoon, with due regard for all procedural requirements.
This is where the empathy comes in, and like I said, finding that in an executive level manager can at times be difficult. It is critically important that humility, empathy and concern are blended into the conversation, and I feel that the best way to do this is to have a senior line manager do the conversation. That way, the manager is a (senior) co-employee, a messenger who can actually empathise, not the change leader whose concern may be obviously disingenuous as it was all their idea to start with! Be always kind, and be always real. From the company’s perspective as well, its best not to field the final decision maker in the early stages (otherwise the playing for time strategy of “I’ll have to check that with the exec team” becomes quickly farcical)
The process is easy to comply with if broken up into bite size chunks, but the value of making space and time for contemplation and showing respect is huge. The key component of respect is truth. Full disclosure of all key details is vital. Attempts to be secretive and declaring certain information off limits, is hugely disrespectful; very destructive to trust, as well as usually being in bad faith. Rule of thumb – if there is a sense that relevant information needs to be concealed in a redundancy situation, then the process is definitely in danger of being unfair, disrespectful, and disingenuous.
There will be real pain, real hurt, confusion and fear. Hard questions, and the company representative must be ready for them, and must answer them well. There might even be anger and frustration, and the manager needs to hear those reactions without defensiveness, and without indulging in their own retaliation or reaction.
The group presentations and discussions that happen when general restructuring announcements are made, should be encouraged. Nothing stops the rumour mill like the clarity of communication, and the freedom to talk and the availability of leaders to answer questions! And nothing starts the rumour mill up like attempts to limit it! Again, as full a disclosure as possible should be attempted, erring on the side of more. Why not? Whatever is required by law, don’t skimp at all on that, and go further if you can. Going further is good faith. It makes the company the good guy in a tough situation. Work can stop for a few hours – even a full day – if necessary. Offer that. Be kind. Make space. Empathise.
Delivery is everything, and presenters must plan for and be prepared for hard questions that people want – and need – answers to. The inability to answer questions honestly and straight away, will be devastating to the company’s reputation, and will cause everyone – even those “unaffected” – to distrust the process (remember they are NOT unaffected – its their colleagues getting the chop!).
The company representative must not stand there like a robot and present blandly off the PowerPoint. Figure it out! Sit, stand, lean in, lean out. Slow down, speed up, repeat yourself. Make eye contact, change your tone, express care, express hurt, feel the room and gauge its temperature. Modulate and reengineer your words to meet the needs in the room. But always, have lots of information available and share it freely.
Don’t do these meetings on a clock. Leaders, trust me that on the day of this discussion, you do NOT have anything more important to do than be present. Stay, until the very end, and be available. Don’t be busy, don’t do emails in another room. Don’t go to other meetings. Treat these moments as important as the employee would like them to be treated. Every employee in the room will get your real message and your “real” heart if you “up and off” to a sales meeting or to catch a plane after abruptly ending the discussions. Stay late; stay an extra day if you have to. Finish strong. Create some space and time that you are willing to be in no matter your own personal discomfort. Make it personal for you to be real, don’t make it a business transaction that you can sign off on without a backward glance.
This is where a leader needs to be willing to wear the discomfort of extended silences, hard questions and answer sessions, making eye contact with hurting employees and waiting for people to struggle with hard questions without rushing them. Its called humility. Its called grace. It’s a transcendent thing, and people need it. It will make or break your credibility. Know that as the creators of pain, we leaders have the responsibility to sit with the wounded as much as they need it, and honour the hurting, with care and compassion.
I would want to trust that senior leadership avoid at all costs the “seagull approach” in theses situations… you know, “fly in, drop a load, and fly off”. If you don’t have the stomach for these situations AND the skill to deliver empathy, get someone else to do it. And maybe, to be brutally honest, sit down and question your readiness for your role.
I will continue the “How” with a discussion around clarity and integrity of communication.