UPFRONT Taking greater care with change

Despite skill shortages and low unemployment, companies are still laying people off. But how they do it is changing, as companies realise the value of common sense, human approach to change.
As some of the country’s largest employers continued to restructure through 2005, many employees would have had far from merry Christmas as they faced redundancy and the daunting prospect of job search, CVs and interviews. For others, redundancy would have been dream come true, chance to pursue fresh and more meaningful future. And then there would have been those so bitter about the whole experience that they spent the holiday period plotting revenge on the employer who had cast them out.
Fortunately the continuing demand for skills will take some of the sting out of being surplus to requirements, and may help restore battered egos, confidence and self-esteem. But this could also encourage cost-cutting employers to take more cavalier approach to laying people off, on the basis that “there will be plenty of opportunities out there for them”.
Asked whether such attitudes were emerging, Murray McLachlan, principal consultant at Right Management Consultants, shared completely opposite experience. “There’s lot less callousness these days in the way redundancies are handled,” McLachlan comments. “Some companies are working very hard to treat people decently. They want people to depart with dignity, feeling positive. There’s also lot more pressure to send positive signals to stakeholders to assure them the brand is being protected.”
There is too much at stake for companies to ignore the consequences of shabby treatment. Disgruntled employees may deliberately seek employment with competitors, or set up on their own account to compete against their previous employer. Furthermore, companies need to retain goodwill in ex-employees in case they need to call on their knowledge short-term to see restructures through, or for longer projects in the future.
The other imperative for treating leavers well is to retain the talent remaining in the organisation, the “survivors”. “It’s not just exiting staff that companies are focusing on,” McLachlan points out. “They realise that survivors have to be cared for too.”
If “survivors” witness callous treatment of ex-colleagues, their loyalty and commitment to the company may be eroded to the point that some jump ship rather than risk similar fate themselves. Others may feel guilt, distrust, fear, anxiety and resentment as they are expected to revert to “business as usual”, often with increased workloads and diminished resources.
So what are companies doing these days to show they care and manage these risks?
“Learning to treat redundancy the same way they would an amicable separation,” says McLachlan, who advocates giving people the same rites of passage they would have enjoyed had they been retiring; allowing them closure on their time with the organisation. More and more companies are striving for positive outcome by:
• Letting people go early if they want to, without sacrificing their redundancy payout.
• Letting them farewell clients as well as colleagues.
• Ensuring departures are marked with farewells and gifts.
• Letting people start outplacement immediately if they want to.
• Offering free counselling to them and their partners.
• Being generous with time off to seek alternative employment.
For survivors and their managers, there is growing demand for support and training in how to cope with emotional reactions to change; leaders and managers are recognising their own need to manage and communicate better during change; companies are beginning to realise they need to look beyond financial incentives to retain survivors.
While some employers may seem slow to realise the value of treating staff with respect, the trend is definitely for the better according to McLachlan. And far cry indeed from the high profile case of Wendy Pye, who, in the 1980s, reacted to her experience of redundancy by setting up in direct competition against her former employer, and achieved spectacular success.

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