I’ve always said to my clients that ‘how you treat those that you ask to leave, sets the tone for those that remain’ so you can see that I am an advocate of smart empathetic practices when it comes to making people redundant. But I recently realised that I’d never actually written about how to do it or not to do it.
Leave me in Limbo
If you are going to make someone redundant don’t make it drag on. Yes, you need to consult and yes if you do that with the right intent you might change your mind, but the day you notify someone that their ‘role is possibly going under a proposed restructure’ then you should know the implications of the restructure you have in mind. After all, you are management and hold all the cards. So leaving it weeks and weeks before you tell people isn’t just lacking in empathy its doesn’t show you or your organisation as being in control (would you want to follow someone who just couldn’t decide and left you in Limbo?).
‘The pick up your box’ text
At the other end of the spectrum we have the joy of technology. Its time saving, you can pre-prepare and time things. Its wonderful isn’t it! Until you use it to make someone redundant. All thats says to the receiver is ‘that you didn’t have the guts to look me in the eye and do it’. Want that kind of reputation? Empathy Shampathy!
Can you do this before you go?
When you’ve told someone that they are surplus to requirements then they should be surplus to requirements I’m not saying that you fire everyone on the spot but if you’ve told them that their job is to be disestablished on a certain date as its surplus to requirements then don’t overload them with work right up to the last minute. Similarly don’t get to the end date, then realise you were wrong and expect them to stay. They will have had a long time to fall out of love with you by then.
Form a line here
I’ve seen many days where one person after another get told whether they have a job or not. They are not fun for anyone, but if you are restructuring then thats what you’ve got to do. What you can do is get through those who you are letting go as quickly as you can in the process. Don’t see 20 people to tell them that they have a job and make the last person wait till 4pm to know that they are surplus to requirements. But do see them one by one. Don’t form two groups in two rooms, walk in and tell one half that they are all going so that it is done quickly. (see texting, looking people in the eye and empathy above).
I know you might feel like a drink after you’ve been through a long day, but don’t grab a few buddies from the office and go to the local bar to celebrate the end of the downsizing. People will see you and might think you are heartless and not the caring soul that you are.
Don’t delegate it
No, it’s not HR’s job. You are the boss, you do it.
Making someone redundant can be the worst day in their life. Treat them with respect, dignity and empathy and do what needs done in a way that shows that you know they are human, with lives and mortgages too. That way the people that remain may still want to work with you.
When you are setting out your change communication strategy, what are you trying to achieve? Are you just there to keep people up to date with the timeline of the project? Are you setting out to market all the good things that your change will bring? Are you planning to deal with all the people issues and manage all the ‘what’s happening to me?’ questions that come with change?
Hopefully the answer is all three, but I often see comms that is only about one or two at best. Sometimes it’s because people don’t see the value in a three part comms strategy, but sometimes it’s old fashioned turf wars at play. Whatever the reason, if your change comms is not a cohesive mix of all three then you are missing an opportunity at best an potentially putting your change at risk at worst.
Progressing the Timeline
It’s a change programme so no doubt you’ve told people that something is going to change. In days gone past that was it, but most of us know that the most basic element of change is that people want to know what’s happening. Without knowing what’s happening they can’t identify with the change. If they can’t identify they won’t buy in. So the most basic change comms takes us through the change programme as and when it happens, which is my circus analogy. The Comms tells us that ‘the circus is coming’ to ‘the circus is here’ with updates in between telling us about the different acts as they arrive. This is a necessary part of any change communication strategy, but on its own it’s limited. It’s limited by lack of meaning to the individual who wants to know what the circus means to them and why they should care about it, what acts matter from their perspective and which ones will affect their role.
Comms as a marketing aid.
When something new is being rolled out, it’s no surprise that management want to sell in the advantages of it. This is particularly true of technology changes, most of which are highly expensive, take a lot of effort, can cause disruption whilst being installed, but can look like little has changed for the user, particularly if the are replacing something existing. Often the tech teams can see lots of advantages in the new equipment or software, but face a constant barrage of requests to modify it to keep it the ‘way we do things now’. The trouble is, every change to replicate today, reduces the impact of the new. Take your laptop as an example. How many of the apps and software that come with it do you use? Is the fist thing you do when you get a new machine check that it does everything you do today? Admit it, is your email set to traditional view?
The possibilities of technology in the workplace can easily come to naught of we are not guided to use them, as are all changes of system & process whether technological or not. So marketing the possibilities is a necessary part of change communications. On its own though it has no context, as it’s a one pitch sale, ‘buy this and your life will be better’. However if the message is linked to the flow of the programme its possible that you have more than one chance at making the pitch (and we all know that people need to hear at least seventeen times before they buy)
What’s happening to me?
The third part of a comms strategy is the one that helps people understand the impact of the change on them. Every time the technology or process is marketed, people will ask ‘what does this mean for my role?’ And if there is any hint of job reductions they will ask ‘is this the bit that takes away my job?’ If you are rolling the change out but haven’t worked out which jobs are affected (as you are still trying to understand the potential of the new process/system/technology) then every time you communicate in timeline mode or marketing mode, the receivers are listening in ‘what’s happening to me mode’ and that means they aren’t taking your message on board. They can’t if they think their job is at risk.
So the perfect Comms strategy includes the human impact in the Comms flow. However people changes are often seen as the domain of HR, particularly when some aspect of the change affects roles, or reduces them. Project managers and Technologists often don’t like to touch this aspect of change in case it tarnishes the nice aspects of their nice new equipment and software. HR often prefer to manage this themselves as it’s their domain, they don’t trust the technologists or the project manager or in some cases they want control or credit. So what happens is the project markets their product and sound disconnected from the people (‘I know you are in fear of your job, but but my nice shiny gadget’) and HR come out to communicate when they are ready to tell you whether you have your job. They don’t come out alongside the project timeline and tell you how the decision us going to be made etc, they come out separate to it.
Even worse, the Comms is often not connected. The HR language is legalized to ensure the company doesn’t get taken to court, and there is a risk that they say something differently than the project has been marketing for weeks or months. Disconnected and contradictory means that every good message the project has been trying to put out is lost. In addition if people are only listening to hear if they have a role there are two states of mind with this approach. Firstly ‘I’ve still got my job so nothing has changed’ or ‘I’ve got no job so I don’t care about what is happening here’. In either case a disconnect from the project. In the end the project keeps clear of the HR issue in case it was tarnished and it ends up tarnished anyway because of that separation.
HR will have done their job in reducing numbers and changing job descriptions. The project team will have done theirs in installing new technology or process. But unfortunately for the operations team who are their customer they have a group of people who probably haven’t bought in, are often suspicious of the company and their management and in many cases don’t think anyone told them about it because of the lack of cohesion in the messaging.
Restructuring is a phrase that is common around the business world. If you’ve not been involved in one as a leader or employee you are very unusual.
Despite the amount of restructuring that takes place (or maybe because of it) very few deliver any real and lasting change. Indeed many just cut the wage bill, and some are done purely for that reason. But that always seems a very limited reason to change your structure.
Indeed if you are running your business well you should always have the most effective number of people engaged in the most effective process for delivering your business results. And those people should be grouped together in work units that enable them to best deliver the task that they are there for. That grouping of work units is effectively your structure.
If you look at it that way, structure should fall out of a process that groups people together to make it easy to do their job when their job requires them to engage with other people.
But if that was the case, why do many workplace problems occur because people from one work unit have to interact with people from another work unit. Indeed many restructures are done to manage these issues of interaction. But again, most don’t succeed because the issues are with the interacting people and not with the structure. Because structure is not real. It’s an imaginary construct designed by managers to create order where order would not exist otherwise. It’s there to prevent chaos, remove inefficiencies and speed up process. But most don’t do that.
Because it’s imaginary. So it can’t do anything.
So why are so many $’s spent on changing something that is unlikely to do anything but change the wage bill for a short time (and many wage bills gradually creep back up after a restructure as people are brought back to do things that still need done and were forgotten about until they were missed). The answer might lie in looking at the organisation if we had no structure.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if that was the case. if organisations had no structure imposed and people were given a very clear job description, defined and measurable outcomes and clear boundaries (you can’t spend any money, but you can solicit the support and know-how of anyone else in the organisation to deliver what you’ve been asked to deliver). Would it work? If you had 100% of your employees fully skilled in delivering what they had been asked to do, self starting, with self-discipline, built in risk sensitivity, attitudes that were positively aligned to the environment (so unlikely to mess up others work to advance themselves, un-selfish with their skills and knowledge etc) and a heep of other attributes. Then you might succeed in delivering without any structure whatsoever.
But people aren’t like that in the main, so we need the out in place supervision to make sure that people stay on the path we need them to, to clarify things and answer questions etc. We need quality checkers to keep an eye out for those places where human imperfection comes to play . We need HR people to help us employ people, pay them and help in disciplinary cases. And the list goes on.
So we need structure. But I wonder if we need all the structure we sometimes put in place or have we got used to putting in structures that we don’t think about some of them any more.
Look at some job descriptions for managers and you will find things in there that are to justify position or salary as opposed to a real need to get the best from those who report to them (the prime role of a manager). Structures are often defined based on how many direct reports a manger can manage and yet the manager spends very little of their time managing those people. Leadership posts are created that are still expected to deliver specialist activities and specialists are given people to manage to justify paying a leadership salary. People are put in groups and told they are a team but they have no interaction with each other and the manager creates false team activities to justify the word team. People are aligned in technical skills groupings yet 90% of their time is spent with people in other units. People with specialist skills are embedded in units to support those people and then find that their work is being dictated by a manager sitting outside of the unit. People are pulled together under one GM because they are all roughly engaged in the same thing and then layers of managers managing layers are put in place over the top of them. And many more poor decisions are made because the wrong problem was trying to be solved.
So the next time you draw a structure out why not ask yourself ‘will this enable people to do their job easier by aligning people that are interconnected in our processes? Then test it for unnecessary hierarchies, role and salary justifications, unclear groupings or changes just to deal with problem interactions.
Or maybe ask yourself, ‘how would people align if we didn’t have a structure?’and then work backwards from that.
A colleague recently went to a conference event that had a number of business speakers of some experience. He told me that one of them spoke about an ever growing dependency on systems to solve business’s problems when it’s good people you really need. That lead to a question from the floor asking the speaker ‘what do you think of HR then?’ to which they replied ‘if they stick to what they are good at instead of blocking things, then they are ok’. This was from a senior and respected figure in industry.
The day after this conversation I was in a room at a meeting dealing with a difficult performance issue. I have often been expected to ‘manage people out’ as part of change exercises and have got used to the fact that lots of managers go to extreme lengths to get rid of people they don’t like instead of dealing with it properly. In this case I soon realised that the HR manager knew that this was not a performance issue but a personality clash. But he was sitting there trying to go through the process (and heading rapidly to a constructive dismissal case in my view) instead of sitting with the manager and saying ‘what you have asked us to do is unacceptable’
I reflected on the two conversations, and saw that they were the two ends of the same question. What are HR really there for? The business leader saying ‘HR blocked things’ could have worked with an HR person who regularly did what I’ve advocated above I.e telling them ‘you can’t do this’, and they didn’t like it. But they could also have been meaning an HR manager that worked to their own agenda. I’ve seen both and seen mixed results from both approaches.
HR as a voice of conscience:
I’ve often told of a manger I worked for who regularly sat his HR director down and said ‘tell me what I’m not wanting to hear?’. He knew he needed to know what was going on ‘people-wise’ even if it wasn’t his favourite topic. He knew that he had to pay attention to company values as much as he needed to understand potential employment law issues. His HR director was a voice of conscience, but a permissive one. You don’t listen to your conscience if you don’t want to. Does your HR manager have to force you to hear what you don’t want to hear? do you see that as part of their role? Or are they there just to wipe up your mess?
HR as a strategic partner:
How often have you heard that phrase? How often has it been true? I bet the former beats the latter. For HR to be a strategic partner their initiatives and business initiatives need to be seamless. I’ve recently been talking to one great HR manager who is looking to work with a merger team that sits within the business to test, trial, role out and prove a whole load of change tools and processes that the business is lacking. Not just rolling out some training to managers and seeing what happens, but actually working to make the change successful and that being the way the rest of the business says ‘I’d like some of that’. Not dancing to their own tune or just doing what business tells them, but working as a partner. It takes two to tango though, and you can only do that in a business that sees HR as a strategic partner.
And it genuinely does take Two to Tango. HR that dances to its own tune or doesn’t take moral high ground in the face of poor management behaviours does itself no favours. Likewise a business that takes HR out of a box each time they want someone to do the hard stuff and doesn’t engage with strategic HR initiatives deserves the HR team it gets.
I don’t tend to comment directly about change and change associated activity that is capturing the public eye. I’m not going to get specific today, but I have watched with interest the media coverage of a few recent industrial disputes in New Zealand. They have made me wonder what the management strategy has been, so here are a few do’s and dont’s of change and industrial relations.
Have a plan. As management you are the ones putting this forward. You have all the time to think things through, and by thinking things through I don’t just mean the change you want, but the way you will go about the process, the dialogue, the response to the workforce, risks, issues, dispute management etc. Your change should be strategic so make sure the planning is strategic too.
Make sure that your plan to manage the change is going to pass the test of law. If you have a significant change in working practice for example, you will know that it may not be well received or at best easily received. Think about what you are going to do if your proposals are rejected or if the workforce strike when preparing your plan. Your response is vital. If you are going to dismiss everyone, for example, then make sure it is legal. If you have to turn round your actions after a few days because the court or your lawyers tell you to then it does not bode well for your reputation or long term relations.
Manage ethically and morally as well as legally. I’ve written about this before, but the best currencies within and outside an organisation are respect and trust. People join you, go the extra mile, endorse you, invest in your shares etc when you have those currencies. The leave, do the minimum, bad mouth you and sell their stake when you don’t.
Winning isn’t everything. You are not running a theatre of war, and destroying your business by ‘doing all it takes to win’ in an industrial dispute makes no sense (scorched earth policies worked for the Romans but won’t for you). Remember that the ‘enemy’ are people that you need onside when the dispute is over. Don’t do things just to annoy them it just lengthens the dispute, makes people dig in and creates noise around your discussions. In very few cases does it ‘weaken their bargaining position’
Leave Macho in the boxing ring. Calls of ‘sack them all’, ‘lock them out’ ‘dock their pay’ as soon as your offer is rejected is macho posturing not a policy (see bullets 1, 2, 3, 4). If you can’t convince them with your reasoning and your offer, then you won’t convince them with a war of attrition (they will come back because they are broke and hungry but with what attitude? and who will pay in the longer term).
Don’t manage your dispute via the media. The media will come knocking if you are interesting. In most cases, you are management so the media will be expecting you to behave like good bosses and act accordingly. But they will be looking for when you don’t as that is much better news for them. So behave with dignity, act accordingly and portray yourself and the business honestly and in best light. The media are not your friends to be given juicy tidbits about the opposition. They will take your tidbits but not respect you for them (you are the management and should behave better) and nobody that reads it will think well of you for the leak (see bullet 3). The info will not weaken anyone’s bargaining position anyway.
Just because the union bad mouths you in the media, don’t bad mouth them (see bullet 6). Even on your Facebook page!
In my experience the best managers of industrial relations always remembered that there was another day, knew that they had to look people in the eye tomorrow, and that they were the custodian of the organisational brand and reputation.
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