Redundancy is a word that strikes fear and uncertainty into most people. Even if you are voluntarily leaving a business, being on the end of a redundancy notice can create feelings of loss, instability, and uncertainty. Few individuals embrace the process with a philosophical mindset, which of course is entirely understandable! When time has passed, you may see redundancy as an opportunity to reset or embrace a new career reality, however, it’s not uncommon that negative feelings concerning the experience stay around for a long time to come.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on your view of the world) the days of having several jobs in the same company, for the whole of your working life, has gone. In fact, you are more likely to have several careers, let alone jobs, spanning well into your so-called retirement years!
One thing is almost certain – there will come a time when you will go through a redundancy situation. For some, you may not just go through it, you may also have to manage it.
Note: In non-UK territories, redundancy might take a different form, for example as part of a social plan, restructure, or other job loss situation – even if temporary. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions associated are likely to be no less diminished.
Managing redundancy requires incredible delicacy. Most managers we have spoken to dread the difficult conversations and challenges it brings. If your employer is also in the news headlines, generating negative coverage, it can pile on an extra layer of stress.
Perhaps as a manager, you are lucky enough to know in advance what is about to play out? Alternatively, you may be left being the harbinger of bad news, with little more than a few days preparation. Being privy to sensitive information, perhaps knowing that your organization is struggling financially, can leave you managing an emotional and difficult process while fearing for your own job. Delivering tough messages objectively and with calm is therefore a challenge, even for the most experienced among us.
A big part of any management role is communication and expectations management. This helps steady the ship in times of upheaval and crisis. Managing expectations around redundancy often means providing reassurance to people about what is going to happen, answering key questions posed by members of the team about process, timings, and who might be affected.
From personal experience, we have always found that employees are adept at sniffing out falsehoods, fake promises, and compromises. Many can see and sense when things are not going to plan, even if management remains stum. As a manager, you need to be on your ‘A’ game when people’s jobs are at stake and the atmosphere is heightened and tense. Check out our career journals to help you cope with difficult situations at work.
Keep focus and be honest (within commercial restrictions)
When managing redundancy your first instinct might be to shield and protect your team from what is going on ‘upstairs’, while keeping them engaged and focused on the here and now. Not doing so could potentially derail goals and targets, making the situation worse.
Keeping people deliberately in the dark (generally, because the answers are not clear, or you have been instructed to say nothing) places you in an invidious situation. People are far more resilient than organizations give them credit for and while no-one wants to hear about redundancies, people hate to be kept ‘hanging’ wondering exactly what will happen and when.
Our advice has always been to tell people honestly, as soon as is commercially possible. Hearing that 2,500 redundancies are to be made at Head Office, on News at Ten, is the worst possible way to instill confidence in your team that they will be managed with care and dignity.
Running alone or being with the team?
As a manager, making members of your team redundant can be very personal. You may be loyal to the organization, but in crisis, you are just as likely to be loyal to the people you work around day-to-day. This, we believe, is to be respected rather than used against you. Most managers want to get their team through this difficult time – ensuring that those who leave are treated fairly and those who stay are not traumatized by everyone else’s experience! If you have recruited and built your team from scratch, then you have invested a lot of time and effort in them – support, induction, training, coaching, performance management, and celebrating success. You’ve no need to apologize for caring. Thank goodness you do!
There are occasions, however, when it’s important to look at the situation objectively. Allying with your team against your employer, may not be the best strategy, especially if downsizing the business is both necessary and inevitable. Instead, try and remain objective – as the saying goes ‘you may not be able to calm the storm, but you can calm yourself’. Keep on top of the process, be respectful both to your line manager and your team, and communicate only when it is commercially appropriate to do so.
Managing redundancy – what managers all agree on
We reached out and chatted to hundreds of managers going through redundancy processes with their teams. Here are some of the things they all agreed on:
Have a communication plan
This is important from day one. People need to be communicated to and made aware of what is currently happening. It’s also important to be consistent across different parts of the organization. If you say one thing and the HR team says something else, mistrust builds extremely quickly. Dissuading people from listening to the latest rumours and ‘coffee machine’ gossip is an important part of the communications plan, although not entirely preventable. The more gaps and blanks in your messaging – the more people will fill in those blanks with their own narrative. If you can’t say anything, we recommend being honest, which means spelling out the fact that things are tough and that the organization is looking into all options. This might include a restructure or redundancies, but nothing has been decided. When you know – your team will know.
Managing redundancy is a tricky position to be in and one not all managers in the organization will even agree on. You may want to find alternative cost-saving solutions, others perhaps might prefer to see more expensive leaders exited, rather than a high number of lower-paid individuals. Every situation will be different. If you are under instruction to keep things tightly confidential until the absolute last minute, it is your duty to follow those instructions. Not doing so could have other consequences, especially if your business trades shares on the UK Stock Exchange or equivalent. Of course, leaks can happen so it’s important to keep your line manager abreast of anything you hear or any concerns you have.
Practice what you need to say. If you are not comfortable with making public speeches, think of conversations with your team in terms of any normal team meeting. Make it feel more informal by sitting among your team, giving them plenty of eye contact. Obviously, this is much more difficult over technology. If you are delivering difficult messages this way, you need to think about how you will connect with those affected – perhaps offering them 1:1’s after a group call? Offer to take instant messages if people feel too emotional to speak face to face. Point them toward any company support line, assistance programme, mental health support team, or HR business partners available and clued up on what is going on.
Follow the legal process
The key to remember with any redundancy or job loss situation, is there are legal processes to follow. Don’t get caught out by being the person who doesn’t understand or follow them. Your HR department should be able to keep you on the straight and narrow, but if you don’t have support readily to hand, remember you can learn more about the process from a number of Government websites, such as Gov.uk. This goes for similar processes in other countries around the world.
Understanding employee rights (including your own) will help you feel more confident and will ensure you manage the process effectively. You don’t want to kick off legal processes when confidence and relationships have already been weakened by a policy not being followed. If you are a manager who perhaps does not have the ultimate decision-making power when it comes to deciding redundancy numbers, it can be extremely hard. Talking authentically and with care and consideration is the best advice we can give.
Keep people focused on the present but allow scenario planning
Keeping your team focused on the present rather than trying to anticipate an unclear future is important. You can only deal with real and tangible situations in the moment. Set an agreed time or day for updates and Q&A’s. Make sure you have read and understood any scripted brief and rehearse what you want to say out loud (preferably at home the night before!) Understand any questions and answers that have been pre-prepared and be clear if there are questions you simply can’t answer. It’s often tempting to offer daily updates to members of your team. This is fine if things are moving quickly. Where this is not the case, instead set an expectation for a bi-weekly or weekly update. Hearing the same message with no ‘new news’ gets wearing very quickly.
Keeping people focused on delivering the day job is important in a redundancy situation, however, be mindful of allowing your team to talk through possible future scenarios. You don’t want these scenarios to frighten people further, however, focusing on what might change gives people the opportunity to plan for different alternative futures. This can restore some sense of control.
Be human and allow for team members needing different levels of support
Think about the uniquely individual reactions you are likely to get from members of your team. What might you say differently to each of them? It may be time-consuming, but it will help you prepare for the more personal conversations that are to come. And remember it’s important to be patient with people. Not everyone deals with these situations in the same way. Make more time for people who need it. By being open, honest, and straight with people, they are more likely to appreciate and value your role in the situation and open up to you in regard to what is going on for them. Keep messages simple and try not to overcomplicate things.
Listen, be patient, and empathize. Sometimes due to nerves people want to speak out and don’t listen closely enough to the messages provided. Perhaps they ask the same questions over and over? By listening, being patient, and empathizing, you make yourself visible and available. It demonstrates your respect for others and your humanity. Having an ‘open door’ policy is important. It doesn’t matter if you must admit that you don’t have the answer to their question. It’s important to understand people’s concerns and feelings, especially if this is the first time they have been put at risk of redundancy. Having someone call you and tell you they don’t know how they will pay their next month’s mortgage is not an enjoyable experience so respecting other people’s situations and the impact it will have on them is critical. Be open and don’t make people feel as if there are barriers between you.
Don’t forget to look after your personal wellbeing
Managing redundancy can take its toll on even the most experienced of managers. You may find yourself struggling to get any quality sleep. You may worry about members of your team. You may be equally concerned about whether your role is at risk. Get the right support for you! You will need to be resilient to see through the process and you will need to bounce back from whatever happens. In the long run, helping yourself will help you manage the damaging effects of workplace stress (find out more about how to deal with stress at work).
Finally, stay true to who you are
Personal integrity is the quality of being truthful and honest with yourself and others; of intentionally aligning behaviour and action to be congruent with your own personal values. If one of your values is to ‘treat others with respect’, then as you manage the redundancy process make sure you do just that. You might not be able to secure the outcome that you or others want but that does not mean to say you can’t behave in an ethically and morally appropriate way. If you have ever experienced the process yourself and been disappointed, or worst still hurt or scarred by it, you will know why maintaining personal standards is a must.
For more information on managing people, check out our Notebook Mentor, ‘Becoming a 1st-time manager’.
Simon A Taylor is Business Development Director at ēniteō consulting and Notebook Mentor.