Redundancy: the cycle of grief

Feb 03 2009 by Gareth Chick Print This Article

Making staff redundant is probably the hardest element of managing staff, but it is sometimes essential if a business is to survive. But in companies large and small, managers all too often handle the process of redundancy badly.

Classic errors include failing to communicate the situation appropriately, neglecting the wellbeing of staff leaving and do not reengaging with remaining staff quickly enough. The result is that those left behind feel flat, fearful and unmotivated, which, in the long run, impacts productivity.

If you must make staff redundant, basic lessons include not over-apologising for the decision. People will understand that it is in the best interests of the company and the future of employment for the majority who remain.

Next, managers should pay meticulous attention to the manner of communication. No employee should hear the news second hand, whatever it takes to communicate with any number of people on any number of sites.

Never underestimate the personal relief employees will be feeling that it was someone else and not them that was made redundant, or the degree to which they will need to get active again to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

The best way they can honour their ex-colleagues is to make the company successful as quickly as possible. Standing around grieving does no one any good and guilt on the part of the leaders serves no purpose whatsoever.

The key to handling redundancy well is also recognising the psychological impact of redundancy on employees Ė those leaving and those remaining. Losing a job or a trusted colleague suddenly is a major shock and the reaction of an individual is generally similar to the grieving process of losing a loved one.

As managers leading people through redundancy Ė whether they are leaving or staying, we should remember the cycle of grief change mode discovered originally by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. It recognises the different stages that people go through to come round to accepting a dramatic change in their lives, and is relevant for any situation where people suffer trauma as a result of an unexpected event.

Understanding that staff will be moving through this cycle will not only enable managers to empathise with them, but it also makes their role as managers more clear. They need to move their employees through the cycle to reach the final stage of acceptance quickly, which is when the business will get back on track.

1. The cycle starts with the immediate emotional reaction to the news with SHOCK AND DENIAL. People in shock do not hear things straight and go into immediate denial.

As a manager delivering the news, you need to keep the message simple and actually quite brutal. The clearer the message, the sooner they will hear it. Watch out for denial and keep countering it by repeating the news.

2. Once the person is ready to move out of denial, they move into ANGER. This is natural, even if they agree with the decision! They are angry because their life has been disrupted and they are now out of control. Someone is to blame. So as a manager you will be blamed; the company will surely be blamed.

Don't argue. Instead let them express their anger. Empathise with them; tell them you understand and that it's ok for them to be angry.

3. DIALOGUE AND BARGAINING is the next stage in the cycle. This is their way of taking control back. Whilst they might still be quite emotional, they will now be more rational and open to debating. Managers need in this stage to do two things - first of all NOT go back on any element of the original decision, however appealing it might be given how reasonable the employee is being.

Secondly find some positive elements of the future to allow the employees to start owning and designing. This starts the process of giving back some control and therefore embedding the acceptance.

4. The next frustrating stage is DEPRESSION AND DETACHMENT. Yes, that's right - we've just got people all positive about the parts of the new plan that they can own and design, feeling quite smug that the fight's over, and then suddenly they all go quiet. They look defeated, beaten and down.

Don't be phased by this stage. Give people a little space; empathise and listen; then let the final stage of the cycle run its course.

5. Remember that in employment situations, this depression and detachment does not last long. People eventually get fed up of feeling low, and it only takes one person, one leader-for-a-day, within the group to stand up one day and say 'come on guys, let's get on with it', and the cohort is ready to move.

A good manager will spot the leader for that stage and encourage them. And move they do - on to ACCEPTANCE and this is when your business will be ready to move forward.

About The Author

Gareth Chick
Gareth Chick

Gareth Chick is a director of Spring Partnerships, a fast growing UK business consultancy which he co-founded with Stephen Archer, in 2003. Clients include Carlsberg, Disney, GE Healthcare and Nestle.

Older Comments

I like your take on this. One important thing to remember about the Cycle of Change/Grief, is that it is not linear. Managers need to remember this. One does not necessarily 'get over' the anger stage, for example, never to have it return, and move on to the 'next stage'. Saying, or implying, 'Gee, I thougt you were over that.' is a common response (reaction?) by someone who is unaware that the process is not linear.

Folks move back and forth and from one stage to another (and back again) and not always in a 'step-wise' fashion. And, the grief process can take time...lots of time. Implying or infering that one should 'move on' is disrespectful and demeaning and certainly not a compassionate or empathic way to manage.

Creating a container where one can feel safe being vulnerable during the change/grief process can go a long way in engendering trust between and among those who remain during the change process.

Thanks for this.

peter vajda Atlanta, GA