Workplace experts Acas have published a new study into how employees feel about delivering news of redundancies and redeployment to their colleagues.

The study is the first of its kind to compare experiences across the public and private sector and was carried out by Dr Ian Ashman from the Institute for Research into Organisation, Work and Employment at the University of Central Lancashire’s Business School on behalf of Acas.

Dr Ashman said: “With business change and downsizing now part of the fabric of the workplace, many employees find themselves having to break bad news to colleagues. And in many cases envoys might be telling people they have worked with for many years that they are going to be made redundant or will have to be redeployed.”

An ‘envoy,’ is the term used to describe the person – usually a line manager or HR manager – who delivers news to others when an organisation is downsizing.

John Taylor, Acas Chief Executive, said: “The research highlights some important lessons for employers going through organisational change. Redundancy is very difficult for all those involved. This research focuses on envoys specifically and there needs to be a greater appreciation of the emotional toll it can take on those at the sharp end of breaking bad news.

Ideally, they should have previous experience and at the very least they should be supported in how best to deal with the situation, including being given a thorough briefing in why redundancy or redeployment is necessary.”

The study found that:

  • Envoys from the public and private sector had similar attitudes towards the role and behaved in similar ways regarding the duties involved;
  • they considered the role the most emotionally demanding thing they had undertaken in their working lives;
  • they work very hard to ensure they do a professional job of breaking the news, often involving long hours and emotional stress which can impact on their personal lives;
  • the closer the relationship the envoy has with those facing redundancy, the more difficult the process is for them, particularly if they still have to work with those affected for some time to come; and
  • envoys coped with the role in different ways, often distancing themselves from the situation by focusing on the process involved which reduced their sense of personal responsibility for the situation.

The study also found that experiences in the private and public sectors varied. Envoys in the private sector were more likely to be involved in the decision making process around downsizing which gave them a greater sense of ownership. This helped them deal with the more difficult aspect of the role. In contrast public sector envoys were less likely to be involved, and though they may understand the reasons behind decisions, they had less sense of ownership and buy in regarding decisions and the procedures for implementing any job losses.

Dr Ashman added: “Given the extent of change taking place in the private sector, these envoys had more personal experience of making people redundant and were therefore more comfortable and confident in carrying out the job with more mechanisms in place to support them.”

Envoys in the public sector also reported feeling more isolated, and media coverage and political influences made it more difficult to communicate downsizing messages. This hampered the ability of public sector envoys to do their job.

John Taylor added: “Acas has considered the research findings carefully and produced practical guidance for employers which focuses on the factors employers need to consider to ensure that the ‘envoy’ role receives the support it needs. This includes how to select the right person for the job based on our wider experiences and the research findings.”