How to manage redundancy survivors

2008

Making a valued colleague redundant is probably the conversation managers dread the most.

But while worrying about how you are going to deliver the news is all well and good, managers also need to be focusing their attentions on looking after those left behind.

According to research by U.S pollster Sirota Survey Intelligence mass lay-offs – or those involving 50 or more workers – have now reached their highest number since 9/11.

In September there were 2,269 mass layoffs, against 2,407 in September 2001. In fact, overall, layoffs and the unemployment rate in the U.S are now at their highest levels in more than 14 years, it added.

But for managers, the challenge in a tense, unpleasant environment is not to forget to focus on the welfare, productivity and engagement of redundancy "survivors", Sirota has argued.

With the psychological contract between worker and employer at best under deep strain and, at worst, broken completely, workers who have witnessed their colleagues clearing their desks often complain of feeling greater insecurity and higher stress.

Teamwork and productivity can also collapse in the wake of redundancies, as can a willingness to work longer hours as workers generally end up feeling less valued.

Sirota polled 500,000 workers in 2,000 and again in 2002 and found that, following 9/11, employee confidence and attitudes had declined sharply in several key areas, including job security, with more than two thirds feeling less secure about their jobs.

It's findings could well act as a warning to firms not trying to ride out the current economic meltdown.

While more than two thirds in 2000 said they felt valued by their employers, this fell to just 44 per cent by 2002.

Similarly, more than eight out of 10 of those surveyed in 2000 said they co-operated well and worked as a team within their work unit, falling to seven out of 10 by 2002.

Just a quarter felt too much work was expected of them in 2000, rising to more than a third by 2002.

While nearly half had been confident in their opportunities for advancing with their employers in 2000, this had fallen to four out of 10 by 2002.

"During difficult economic times, it's important that employees feel they are valued. Plus, both management and non-management employees are likely to report feelings of guilt, stress, and depression during and after layoffs," said Sirota president Douglas Klein.

"It's easy for management to say that employees are assets, rather than costs, in good times. But in difficult economic times, when cutbacks are unavoidable, best-in-class companies demonstrate they mean it," he added.

Klein has recommended managers take action in five broad areas to help mitigate the after-effects of layoffs on employees who have remained.

These include constant, open communication, allowing employees to respond emotionally to the lay-offs, being proactive about addressing the fall-out from job cuts, demonstrating a long-term, caring interest in workers and empirically determining how things are going, in other words not just guessing.

"Most employees want to know what will be happening to them, especially whether they will they be laid off. Secrecy or lack of transparency will just add to their sense of powerlessness. Do not delay in confirming whether there will be job cuts," stressed Klein.

"Communicate why workforce reductions are necessary. Employees will understand if the workforce needs to be reduced as a last resort," he added.

Managers needed to recognise workers may feel anger, concern, insecurity and "survivor guilt" in the wake of the cuts.

"It is crucial for managers to spend time assuring employees that it is OK to feel this way. Otherwise, employees may release these feelings in non-productive ways or situations," he explained.

While it was normally inevitably that the workers left behind would experience increased workloads, one way to mitigate the effect of this was for managers to involve their employees in the search for solutions, recommended Klein.

"For example, gain-sharing and other employee involvement teams offer opportunities for employees to help improve work processes and teamwork while benefiting economically as well," he argued.

It was also important to demonstrate continuing long-term interest in the careers of the survivors.

"Following layoffs is a good time to introduce 'stretch assignments' – those that will expand the skills of survivors and demonstrate your confidence in them. It is also a good time to increase the frequency of discussions about career-related topics, including possible advancement opportunities," advised Klein.

Finally, managers needed to ensure they were managing by facts and not just by guesswork or intuition.

"CEOs still must report to their external constituencies, including investors, boards of directors, media, and communities in which they do business," said Klein.

"Periodic, systematic, employee attitude assessments enable management to ascertain the impact of their actions on the day-to-day operations of the company. Employee attitude surveys also demonstrate to workers that they are still an important asset," he added.

"Even if budgets have been cut, an efficiently designed employee survey process can provide critical information for management," Klein concluded.

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