Late 2019, Deutsche Bank hit the headlines when it commenced the process of axing 18,000 jobs worldwide. One side note to this story was the humanity the bank showed by allowing employees to stay on the premises for three hours — long enough to collect their belongings and say goodbye to their colleagues.
While this may not seem like a huge gesture in the overall scheme of things, it was a big deal in the world of finance, where a disgruntled employee could wreak devastation at the touch of a button.
During times of change, one of the greatest challenges HR leadership teams face is the challenge to protect the human element. Humans are all governed to a certain extent by emotions, biases and fears; and when presented with some kind of threat, these primordial instincts all bubble to the surface, making it difficult for those affected to view the situation logically and objectively.
In the workplace, this can translate into resistance from employees, resulting in poor engagement either with the change taking place or everyday work, breakdowns in communication, and unplanned turnover. That risk needs to be managed and mitigated by the HR team and business leaders to avoid potential damage to the wider organisation.
Communicate, communicate and communicate some more
We can’t emphasise this too much — the most effective tool you have on your side when it comes to managing change with a human touch is communication. Banks may feel compelled to spring redundancies on unsuspecting employees in order to minimise risk and protect their clients’ interests, but for most organisations, a period of (genuine) consultation and communication can help you avoid the situation where leavers feel blindsided and react in a way that’s difficult for you to control. And as we’ve seen, even those organisations with a genuine need to lay people off quickly can do more to offer a human touch, even if it’s just a little time to say goodbye.
Communicating with your workforce ahead of time enables you to reassure those people who are leaving about what will happen to them. If you’re offering outplacement support to leavers, communicating that ahead of time and explaining how it benefits them will go a long way to helping people feel that they are being treated with humanity and dignity. Of course, you should also take the opportunity to engage and inspire employees who aren’t leaving with your vision for the future of the organisation. They’ll appreciate the fact that HR can help them understand how those changes will directly affect, and even benefit, them as employees and shape corporate culture in the future.
Those conversations aren’t just down to HR though — it’s important to get leaders at all levels of the organisation comfortable and competent at having those conversations. Humans often avoid difficult confrontations, particularly ones that are likely to end in tears — it’s the same principle that makes some people cross the road to avoid a friend who’s been recently bereaved. But if your managers react in this way — perhaps spending a lot of time working from home — when change is in the air, people can feel abandoned. All this adds to people’s fears, giving the impression that what’s coming is even worse than it is.
Our advice to those managers is to resist the temptation to hide and instead, give as much information as you’re able to — let employees know that they’re in the loop and you’ve got their backs. If managers find it difficult, you could consider providing them with training, and of course a good outplacement partner can help facilitate these conversations.
Tailored outplacement support provides a human face
We’ve mentioned that introducing outplacement support is a great way to demonstrate to your people that you’re prepared to treat them as human beings during times of change. But it’s important to make sure that support if offered at the right level, and in the right way. In our experience the key is to make that support personalised. We’ve probably all experienced or heard horror stories of poorly handled support — tens or hundreds of people bundled into soulless rooms to receive advice that’s so generic, it doesn’t tell anyone anything new. Skilled outplacement professionals will work with individuals, or at the most small groups, to identify peoples’ needs and ensure they get the support that will benefit them the most as they embark on this new phase of their careers.
It might be that for some employees, support with accessing the right kind of jobs will be most beneficial, especially if they’re looking to move sectors or have a small network. For others, a period of personal career coaching could also be useful, if they need some support working out what to do next or who want to take up a portfolio career.
Why invest in employees who are leaving?
Sadly, during times of restructuring, which often unfortunately include layoffs, many companies fall short when it comes to understanding human factors and choose to bury their heads in the sand, on the basis that the problem will soon go away.
Anyone with a basic understanding of human psychology knows, however, that avoidance will only get you so far — it’s a way of dealing with an immediate problem, but the issue will likely come back twofold.
When companies avoid offering outplacement support during redundancies, they risk:
- Disengagement and bad feeling from impacted employees that can spread to those staying.
- Unplanned turnover — losing the employees they wanted to keep.
- Brand damage caused by negative PR and (ex-)employee reviews
- Long-lasting damage to the organisation’s culture and trust in management.
Planning a restructure?
As HR’s role grows in importance in the turbulent times we’re living in, making sure that leaders can handle, process and embrace change is essential. Because if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that change isn’t going away.
The moment you realise you may have to lay people off, it’s a good idea to start thinking about what you can do to protect leavers, survivors, and the organisation as a whole — and prepare your leaders for the challenge. Effective communication, and leveraging services such as outplacement support, will enable your organisation to live its values and demonstrate to people that you understand and acknowledge the very real human emotions people will be feeling, and lives you’ll be impacting.
Expert outplacement support, which is tailored to the individual needs, is a great way to guide your employees through the process. Do this well, and you’ll not only limit damage to your brand but also, potentially, the bottom line.