HR on the frontline during redundancies

How HR leaders can support their teams as their teams support the business with redundancies

Laura Welsh
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It has become a cliché to say that companies in every industry are facing unprecedented change. But cliché aside, it’s true. We are living, and indeed working, in rapidly changing environments.  This was true even before the Covid-19 pandemic. A pre-pandemic survey of ours involving 1,000 business decision makers in the UK highlighted that the majority of organisations (65%) are currently dealing with more disruption to the workforce than ever before, with a startling 94% of organisations saying they have recently or are about to undergo significant people-related changes.

 

With the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting every aspects of our lives, this level of uncertainty and change has been further amplified and looks set to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

 

HR leaders have never been more in the spotlight, coming under scrutiny from anxious employees and managers alike whilst partnering with leadership teams to help inform and make long-lasting people decisions when only short-term accurate intelligence is available.

 

Redundancies in particular have always been personnel decisions that feel very personal, but this is even more the case as we enter a new post pandemic world of increased unemployment and business instability.  How should HR leaders support their teams as their teams support the business with redundancies?  How do HR professionals ensure that they’re emotionally equipped to manage difficult conversations day-after-day?

 

Laura Welsh, Head of HR for LHH offers some advice to HR professionals grappling with these questions.

 

Preparation and the devil in the detail

The more the HR team are prepared for a redundancy situation, the better they can support the business and the teams and individuals concerned whilst minimising stress for all involved, including themselves.

As soon as HR leaders know the situation, they should involve their team and provide as much information as possible so that they:

  • Understand what the plan is
  • Know who is doing what elements of the plan
  • Are clear on the timescales
  • Know who is affected and more importantly why they’re affected
  • Understand the rationale for all the decisions made

As well as enabling them to prepare effectively, these are the areas that HR will face questions about directly from the people involved who will expect them to have answers. If the answers are not forthcoming or clear enough, then there is a risk that myths, stories and rumours quickly start circulating. Laura says “The biggest mistake I see when redundancies are made is plans not being detailed enough when it comes to how the process will run and will work. The people impacted and involved want the nitty gritty detail and you can quickly come unstuck if you don’t have the information to share. HR leaders need to be involved in the business decisions right from the start and HR teams need to be brought into the fold as soon as plans are being made.”

Acknowledge the human in HR

Whenever the issue of redundancies is raised, there are likely to be a huge array of emotions playing out across the business.  Fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, resentment and shock are common feelings that surface but there are also those who view redundancy as a positive event depending on their personal circumstances. It’s perfectly normal and natural for HR to experience the same emotions at various points throughout the process. Laura says “As HR are also involved in consultation meetings and having what can be difficult conversations often multiple times a day, all of which require emotional intelligence, empathy and for HR to share a bit of themselves, it’s normal for HR to experience emotions.  The best HR professionals are not robots. It’s how, where, when and to whom they share these feelings that is key, not that they have them in the first place.” Being prepared for these feelings to surface and acknowledging that they exist and that it’s OK for them to do so can help HR teams to support themselves and others. Laura adds “It’s a good thing that HR experience these emotions. It means it’s not something that’s being done lightly.”

Put your own oxygen mask on first

HR teams feel a strong sense of responsibility to make sure the best plans for redundancies are made and implemented in the right way to get the best possible result for people and the business. Laura says “HR need to feel this same sense of responsibility for looking after themselves too so that we’re in the best position to make sure others are OK. It’s the classic case of applying your own oxygen mask first”.  She advises HR leaders to:

  • Stay close to your teams to quickly spot any warning signs that need addressing before they escalate
  • Provide opportunities for the team to formally and informally connect with each other
  • Encourage your teams to take regular breaks even when time is short
  • Have frequent 1:1s
  • Allow them to express their feelings and be vulnerable with you in a safe environment
  • Consider providing them with access to resources and training to help them with key skills at this time such as increasing their resiliency, having difficult conversations, demonstrating emotional intelligence etc
  • Don’t stamp out black humour amongst the team. It can be a great mood lifter at the right time!
  • Encourage your teams to go home at the end of the day knowing that they can look in the mirror and know that they’ve been treating people the way that they would want to be treated.
  • Push for the business to offer the necessary support for all

    Redundancies can be challenging for everyone in the business. Providing timely, relevant support for all of those impacted is both the socially responsible thing to do and the right business thing to do.  Knowing that your people are being supported in the best possible way can also remove a lot of the burden from HR during what is an already difficult time.

     

    1) To those facing redundancy

    Providing outplacement support to those facing redundancy not only supports the individual during what can be a difficult time, but also the mission and values of the organisation. It speaks volumes to your employer brand as you demonstrate a strong duty of care even up until the end of someone’s employment. For the individual, it helps them put their best foot forward and provides them with a new purpose. Whether it be specialist support for your most senior executives or a designated programme for a large group of your employees, there are experts available to help make this whole process a lot smoother for everyone involved. As Laura mentions “Best practice is to offer outplacement support. I have seen the difference between those who get offered this support and those who don’t, and I can tell you this helps not only the initial conversations, but also the individuals feel so much more supported with their next steps. It allows them to focus on the positive aspects of what’s next and helps them to have a much more constructive end of working relationship with the employer.”

    2) Support for managers delivering the news and managing the process

    One aspect of redundancies that often gets neglected is the impact the process has on line managers. With the focus on the employee being impacted, the wellbeing of the managers having to work through one or many consultations, deliver the news and manage the after effects can take its toll. If left unmanaged there’s a risk of falling motivation and engagement, reduced productivity and diminished ability to lead their teams. Laura says “Providing support, guidance and training to these managers before, during and after the redundancy process to ensure they feel fully supported and have the capability and skills needed to effectively lead themselves and their teams through the change brings huge benefit to all in the business.”

    3) Support for “survivors”

    Understandably, the focus is on those exiting the business, yet it is the employees that remain, the “survivors”, that will be pivotal to the future success of the organisation. “Survivor syndrome” is the term often used to describe the impact of redundancies on the remaining staff who kept their jobs. In the same way that people that have lost their jobs experience a range of emotions, so too do those that remain. For most, the initial feeling is one of relief, but this can quickly give way to anger at the loss of their colleagues and friends, guilt if they’ve had to apply and “compete” for a limited number of roles, worry about future redundancies, resentment at picking up the workload and responsibility left by those that have gone, and occasionally envy at a missed opportunity a redundancy payment can offer. If not properly managed and quickly addressed, these feelings can quickly lead to a spiralling dip in motivation, engagement and productivity. Click here for support that can provided to these survivors.

    4) Work with your employee representatives

    Now is the time that having a good relationship with your unions, works councils and employee representatives will really pay off.  In times like these HR and employee representatives should ideally be working together to both minimise the impact on people where possible and of course to ensure the business is doing all it can (within the resources available) to support the staff and managers who are going through a difficult time. The art of the possible will vary depending on your company and circumstances but working with and not against your employee reps is only going to help – they may have some interesting and creative ideas on how to better support people and they will be hearing things from your staff that you might not otherwise be aware of. 

    Find a mentor if it’s your first time

     

    As a final piece of advice for those HR professionals managing redundancies for the very first time Laura says “Find a mentor to guide you through it. Managing redundancies well isn’t something you can learn from a textbook-it’s something you learn from watching it being done and doing it. Sit in on meetings as a note taker. Spend time observing and watching what people do well and do badly. Look at what lands well in the difficult conversations and what lands badly. A good mentor will be able to help you avoid the pitfalls and show you how the redundancy process can be managed with dignity and empathy whilst delivering the best results for the business and the people impacted.”

    Headshot of Laura Welsh

    Laura Welsh

    Laura Welsh is the Head of HR for Lee Hecht Harrison for UK & Ireland. Laura has a BA in French and Russian and an MA in Human Resource Management. Laura is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and has more than 15 years’ experience; leading HR in a range of businesses both in the public and private sectors in the UK and Ireland. Laura joined Lee Hecht Harrison in early 2017


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