Are you about to make positions redundant? What reactions can you expect and how might you deal with these?

First of all, loss of a job is one of life’s most distressing changes, particularly in a climate of economic uncertainty.  It makes sense then that the affected individuals are likely to experience a raft of emotions, and that these emotions will occasionally spill out, causing some undesirable behaviours.

Everyone is different and no-one is on the same emotional journey.  But feelings of loss, anger, grief, helplessness, sadness, hopelessness are all common.    Consequently, from the time you announce your change proposal, through the consultation and decision-making process, and right through to when any affected employees finish with your organisation, you should prepare yourself for some uncharacteristic or heightened behaviour.

Don’t be surprised if there are:

  • Tears, and inability to continue working at times
  • Absenteeism
  • Acting out, conflict, aggression
  • Gossip and negative talk
  • Lobbying and self-promotion
  • Decrease in performance and productivity
  • Noticeable changes in behaviour such as more reserved, more excitable than normal

Though it’s unrealistic to expect you can eliminate these emotions and behaviours, there are certain things you can do as employers/managers to minimise their chance of occurring and help deal with them (NB: we will deal with process issues later, this is about dealing with human behaviour).  

Communication – ensure that it is cleartimelyhonest and consistent with your espoused values.  Give people plenty of opportunities to ask questions and get information.  Observe people, look out for changes in behaviour. Get back to people when you say you will even if you have no news.  Do not leave a communication vacuum.

Support – generally during these situations support should come from someone who isn’t the manager.  It’s a good idea to have an employee assistance programme involved and to suggest to employees that they reach out for support.  Outplacement support is an excellent idea too.  This is where affected staff are given help with preparing to secure their next role – putting together a CV, identifying job options and job search strategies, practicing for interviews etc.  This support is normally provided a consultant.  Another idea is to give people paid time off workto work on their job search and attend interviews.

Keep your Cool – as the manager/employer you set the tone.  Yes, it’s very stressful for you too but if you allow yourself to get upset in any way you create the impression that that type of behaviour is ok – as managers we permit we promote!  It’s ok to empathise but don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an argument or let your personal feelings interfere with the messages you need to convey.  It’s a fine but important line! 

Don’t forget the continuing employees – those who retain jobs can experience what is known as survivor syndrome; emotions such as guilt at retaining employment when others didn’t, loss of a team/a friend, being on the receiving end of some negative behaviour from others.  There are other challenges for those staying on, such as stress and anxiety associated with learning new tasks or having a higher workload, working in a new team, having a new manager.  Things that can help here include providing role clarity and regular feedback one-on-one, providing opportunities for new teams to get to know each other and establish their ways of working and team values, holding workshops to equip people with skills to navigate the emotional challenges of change, creating opportunities for employees to give back or help in some way, e.g. pay it forward scheme (helps build positive feelings about the self), conveying that the employee is valued, sharing what the organisation is doing to support those who have lost their jobs, painting a positive view of the future.  Above all, ensure that your best performers know they are valued.  You will rely on them a lot going forward.

A few final tips:

Remember – no employment change is ever minor.  Human beings are creatures of habit and not predisposed to liking change, even (would you believe it?) positive changes.  So, it makes sense then that even what others may consider minor changes can cause a great deal of upset.  One of the most significant changes you can make to someone at work is to change their reporting line – do not underestimate this.

It will be challenging to keep people engaged in their work when they are faced with possible redundancy.  Keeping things as normal and routine as usual can help but you may need to adjust your expectations slightly in terms of work output.

The prospect of redundancy may cause some changes in behaviour but it does not excuse it.  Be empathetic sure, but do not tolerate behaviour that is clearly at odds with your code of conduct or performance management procedures.  Remember you have a duty of care to look after all of your employees.  You may need to have some challenging conversations to remind people of acceptable  behaviour in the workplace, or conduct a disciplinary investigation.

When you have surplus positions, the positions are redundant, not the people per se. From a procedural point of view, it is important that your communications reflect this. And, it is a reminder that the impacted individuals can remain employees if there are suitable redeployment options (which there may well be).  However, if there are not, ensuring you refer to the position being redundant (vs. the person) also helps impacted people to view the redundancy as a business decision rather than a personal one.