I remember once I had a property that I was renting out, and a friend was in need of temporary lodgings. He was a bit cash-strapped, so we agreed a rental rate that was well, well below market value. Then after a long while, circumstances changed and I simply had to recoup better rental rates or be seriously “in the dwang” myself. Firstly, I did my own homework to see if I could still honour our arrangement. Independently of him, my situation was none of his business. But where the solution to my problem impacted him, I felt that that was different.
Then, when I knew I could not manage without it affecting him, we chatted. To treat him with respect, as a friend, I revealed my finances to him as far as the property was concerned. Maintenance costs, interest rates, repayments, shortfalls etc. That way, he could see my dilemma for himself, clearly, and could understand my reasoning fully as we discussed both his situation and mine. My options did not suit him very well, and there were some painful, but honest, moments. Eventually, he moved out, but a situation that could have strained a friendship did not – in fact, our friendship grew closer.
Maybe that would be excessive for you, I don’t know. It seemed right, and fair, to me.
One on one, if we are doing something that will have a huge effect on a friend or a family member, we would all (hopefully) operate with a great deal of respect and care in how we arrived in that situation, communicated it, and executed it. Because of the fact that we will remain in contact with the person afterwards, see them socially or at family functions, we take care to pay a great deal of attention to respecting them and preserving their dignity, don’t we? It makes life after the event, much more bearable. Its just common decency! Its what every good person would do… Isn’t it?
But I think the restraint that is created by having to see a family member or friend again and again after the event, is not there for employers, who can close the door on that chapter, and forget. After all, “out of sight, out of mind”?
But WHY do we treat those in the workplace any different?
A redundancy is very similar to this, in many many ways. Communication is at the core of treating employees with respect and giving them dignity. Its pretty simple really. Employees are not children. Redundancy is huge, and it impacts massively on the employee, their family and their commitments. It can affect credit ratings, and if it results in relocation to find new work, it can mean complete and utter upheaval both socially and financially. A discussion with these implications should be conducted respectfully on an adult-adult level, not an adult-child level.
When one adult decides what another adult can know or not know, or when they can be told it, then, largely, the first adult is forcing the second adult into the role of a “child”. Of course, some information is rightly confidential, but in reality, Mr CEO, we all know there is not too much of that going on. I guess some employers like to think of themselves as being at a “military” level of secrecy, but in reality, very little of a specific situation is THAT much of a secret and would be an issue if discussed with an affected individual.
What is actually happening, where there is poor communication and non-disclosure, is that the change leader is either ignoring, or not getting, competent ER advice. Perhaps it’s a power play; perhaps its immaturity. Hopefully its not ignorance, that would be inexcusable. Perhaps, its an unwillingness to take advice and get these important people decisions right… because, “CEO”. Who knows. In my experience its quite a complicated thing, and can be quite a Sisyphean challenge for the HR guy.
What it usually is, I have found, is the lack of empathy, and lack of humility that can easily come with the rarified air of a C-suite office. There are “important” things to do, goals to achieve, and reports to write. And “I’m the CEO so this must happen, I have decreed it”. People are complicated and people issues are messy. They clog up the inbox, and they take up time. It is rare that a CEO will say “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and bend his knee to truly understand issues on the same level as the affected employees. I have met one such man, in 20 years of working and travelling. And what a man he was! (John Havinga, I salute you).
So, what would an ideal communication look and feel like (again, this is not definitive as jurisdictional requirements may differ widely)?
- It would be well prepared, and contain an abundance of resource material for the affected employee to consider. It would be open, and honest. Consider this list as an idea:
- Org charts, old and proposed.
- Business case for the new structure.
- List of affected positions.
- Reasons why they are affected.
- What the company has done to avoid the loss of employment
- What other employment options might be available
Why so exhaustive, you ask? Well, as a change leader, these factors have been considered in depth, and the proposal you have come up with is at least a summary of this information. Where it creates a redundancy situation for someone, it is at the very least fair that the employee be shown HOW you arrived at your decision, and what factors influenced you. (Remember, we are aiming for adult to adult, not adult to child)
I would prepare this as an information pack, with suitable confidentiality requirements, of course.
- An employee would know why they were called to a meeting, and legal requirements would be respected as a bare minimum! And employees who are similarly affected should be seen together.
This prevents the very obvious perception that the company is being secretive and separating/ dividing employees so that they are in a weakened position. Why else would it separate similarly affected employees?
- Employees would be given time to consider, even to chat amongst themselves and get their heads around the issues. The complex issues that have led to this need to be understood so that intelligent questions can be asked and counter proposals considered, but also, everyone has a personal world that is deeply affected. Also, because EVERYONE is affected, even the “not affected” ones, it is understandable if everyone is permitted to work together to understand the impact and to consider alternatives (Unless of course, only the executive could EVER be clever enough to think of all the possible strategies and solutions…)
- Once all the ideas from the employees have been considered, they should ALL be fed back to ALL the affected employees, and even to the entire employee body. Without comment, and with gratitude.
This shows that the executive has not filtered the feedback and have honestly taken it all on board, at least to start with. It shows respect to every employee that ALL the ideas are important, that their endangered colleagues are important, and by default that they too are important.
- Viable proposals from the employees should be adopted. If there is a zero/minimal cost difference from the executive proposal to the employee proposals, and jobs are saved, then the solution that saves jobs is the better one.
Doing this PROVES that ending someone’s employment truly is a last resort, not a badly disguised and premeditated strategy. Anything else is bad faith and demonstrates that the communication process is cynical, not genuine.
- When employees are made redundant, how the company processes that termination, and how they verbally honour (or do not dishonour) the departing employee, is the best indicator of whether “Our employees are our most valuable asset”. For a while, it is imperative that the corporation have a human face – after all, these are “no fault” terminations, and faceless, mechanical processes are extremely out of place.
In the worst possible scenario, where the process leading up to terminations has been a tough one, with possibly anger, frustration, hurt, and loose words, a CEO would do well to not close out the process “with prejudice”, meaning a quick, blunt, termination and a stony silence. It is an opportunity to take the moral high ground, but sadly some CEO’s I have worked with have not handled those situations as well as they might have. On a few occasions I have watched them destroy their own credibility and reputations by throwing a toddler-like tantrum and tossing their toys out the cot. The opportunity to really take the moral high ground back, was there, but wasted. And everybody saw it…
Treating both remaining and departed people with respect, preserving their legacy, and ensuring that remaining employees have the opportunity to grieve for lost colleagues, reveals high calibre leaders with empathy and insight, and a talent for building sustainable workplaces.