Remember Ryan Bingham? Let me refresh your memory. Ryan Bingham was the main protagonist of Up In the Air, played by George Clooney. A “corporate downsizer,” Bingham did what many seasoned HR professionals dread – tell people that their services were no longer required. He did it well and with compassion but that did not make it easier or palatable for either the people being fired, or for that matter, himself.
While corporate downsizers are not the norm in our industry, especially in India, it is true that sometimes unfortunately, tough situations demand tough responses that if not handled responsibly, can lead to catastrophic consequences for the organization. In terms of Human Resources, our worst crisis in recent times was during the recession of 2008-2009, when organizational restructuring and layoffs were the order of the day. The situation has definitely improved since then, but unfortunately, the modern business context is a challenging one and very often, hard decisions cannot be avoided. In every tough situation, HR has a leading role to play in ensuring it is all handled in a fair, empathetic and respectful way.
HR’s responsibility is not only towards the team members being affected, but also the others who are not. Team spirit and morale can be easily impacted by the departure of team mates while an acquisition and merger situation, if not handled, properly, can lead to insecurities and confusion. Unlike in the US, most of us don’t have the luxury of outsourcing this unpleasant and complex duty to people like Bingham. Also, I must admit, I think it is better if these situations are managed in-house as these are our people and we have a responsibility towards them. There are a few ground rules that I feel must be kept in mind when dealing with tough times to ensure seamless and professional management of the situation:
Communicate communicate communicate: I cannot overemphasize the importance of communication during difficult times. Open and two-way communication is the most basic criteria of managing change in an enterprise, and this must come from the very top. The leadership team and management must be seen as being transparent, responsible and approachable during any HR crisis. Proactive and continuous communication from the management on all details pertaining to the situation always helps to clear the air and stop rumors from spreading. Executive emails and town halls can go a long way in restoring faith and good will in the company.
Standardize communication – While the top management can and should reach out to the team at large, it is important to make sure line managers are on the same page as far as key items are concerned. It is a good idea to create a change management team, especially in situations of reorganization, and equip them with a standardized FAQ document. Some companies go as far as to create a separate microsite handled by the change management team that includes FAQs, updates, information on organizational policies, change of designation, news and also allows for employee Q&As. This makes the entire process transparent and open to all, and nips all water cooler gossip in the bud.
Keep it fair, empathetic and respectful: The team member you are letting go has financial obligations and most likely a family to support. Understand and empathise with her situation. Pay her dues up front. Most organizations offer employees what is termed a “golden handshake” and this is an excellent move on the part of the company if they can afford it. It will help tide the team member over till she finds another job and she will appreciate it. Remember this decision is a big blow for them and they are likely to react emotionally. Allow them to do so without getting involved in a personal discussion. Thank them for the work they did for your organization and recommend them to other organizations if the opportunity presents itself.
Welcome them back: Former team members are the most valuable resource before any organization. Whether you let them go or they left on their own accord, any chance to bring them back to the fold should be capitalized on. Former team members already know the work and the work culture and policies so they will be able to hit the ground running and not need a settling in period like new joinees. Additionally, they will bring with them the depth of experience gained at another organization. This can only be achieved if the lay off or reorganization situation is handled well, and efforts are made to keep in touch with the team member after he leaves the organization. The team should reach out to people who were let go earlier the moment there is any opportunity for hiring in the organization. In fact, once the worst is over, and the company is back on its feet, there should be proactive efforts to bring back former team mates.
Be wary of social media – There was a time when what happened inside an organization stayed mostly within its walls. The advent of social media has changed the nature of the game. A careless tweet can wreak havoc on not just the organization’s reputation but also on employee morale. Social media can give rise to baseless rumors and panic. The countless Facebook and WhatsApp hoaxes we encounter on almost daily basis is proof of that. A complete ban on social media would be infringing on the team’s individual rights and freedom. IT is therefore a good idea to issue some guidelines about what can and cannot be shared on social media during a sensitive period.
We would all like to work in an atmosphere of certainty and stability. Unfortunately, market contexts sometimes are beyond our control and lead to difficult people related situations. With some planning and preparation, all problematic situations can be dealt with professionally, efficiently and with minimum damage to both the individual and the organization.