Redundancy: How Does An HR Professional Deal With The Aftermath?
Why dealing with the ‘survivors’ of a lay-off situation requires as much skill as handling the initial redundancy process
No-one enjoys talking about redundancy. Individuals are generally drawn to Human Resources as a career because they actually like people! They want to play their part in helping organisations to flourish whereas a redundancy scenario all too often indicates the very opposite of a thriving business.
The reality is that redundancies are a fact of business life. Cyclical recessions, restructuring, tech advances, relocations: they can all trigger redundancies. The public sector’s certainly not immune either; we’ve recently seen the announcement of another 4,500 job losses in the Army. What’s more, many remaining Armed Forces personnel are openly seething over the proposed long term shift in reliance away from regulars and toward part time reservists. So far as the role of a HR manager in a redundancy scenario is concerned, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the hard work is done once the redundancy process is over. Unfortunately not. Dealing with the survivors brings a whole new set of issues.
Surely redundancy survivors are the ‘lucky ones’? What’s the problem here?
It’s the trauma. Whether you’re the CEO, HR manager or part-time receptionist, working for an organisation that’s undergoing any sort of restructuring can be stressful. If it’s a lay-off situation, the atmosphere can be positively volatile. From a HR point of view, your job is generally to ensure that the whole process is conducted in a manner that’s beyond reproach so far as objectivity is concerned. If you fall short you could potentially be opening the doors to unfair dismissal claims further down the line. Your aim is to get your organisation through it fairly and efficiently – which of course is easier said than done!
Once the process is complete and the dust has settled it’s not quite as easy as getting back to ‘business as usual’. Your remaining employees have just undergone quite an ordeal – possibly having been left in limbo for weeks or even months whilst the process was underway. ‘Survivor Syndrome’ is as real a phenomenon in a post-redundancy workplace as it is in many other post-traumatic contexts.
How do the survivors react?
Sociologists, psychologists and HR gurus have been looking at this problem for at least 20 years. One prominent 1993 study of restructuring in the U.S. for instance highlighted the following as typical reactions:
• A feeling of insecurity;
• Depression, stress and fatigue;
• Lack of commitment;
• A feeling of unfairness, distrust and betrayal.
What’s interesting is that the authors of this report thought that the survivors were actually in a worse position – psychologically – and sometimes even financially – than the people who were actually laid off. After all, the ‘victims’ were generally provided with severance packages, advice and counselling whilst the survivors were generally expected to get back to work – almost as if nothing had happened. Quite a big ask when you think about it.
Why is it the employer’s problem?
It seems rather glib to state that a happy worker is a more productive worker – although one of the fundamental points of HR theory is of course that there’s quite a lot of truth in that idea. There’s something more specific and immediate to consider though. In a post-redundancy situation, the organisation is often already as lean as it can get. The business can generally ill afford any more wastage in the form of members of the remaining skeleton staff walking out. What’s more, as we’ve discussed previously, organisations are much more likely these days to fill positions via a temporary to permanent staffing route. The last thing a business needs is to have to ditch that type of approach and instead incur recruitment costs to fill positions in a skeleton staff – especially when times are lean.
What can a HR manager do about it?
Whether you’re the head of the Army’s HR department with 4,500 redundancies to oversee, or the owner of the smallest of businesses, the principle’s still the same. Communication is key. Open and honest communication before, during and after the redundancy process is underway will certainly lessen the chances of “dissent in the ranks”. We’re not talking merely about bland reassurances that ‘everything’s going to be ok’ either. What will help is if you can demonstrate to the survivors that the terminated employees are being provided for – both financially and in terms of counseling, guidance etc.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that furtive board meetings and evasive silences about the future prospects of the organisation are hardly conducive to a healthy work environment – no matter how tough your employees are trained to be!