Leadership falters following redundancies

by Iain Hopkins13 Sep 2012

With large-scale redundancies in a variety of sectors being announced every other day, business consultants are urging employers to consider those employees left behind.

This week alone has seen announcements that Xstrata Coal will cut 600 jobs, including office-based positions in Sydney, and the QLD state government announced the cutback of thousands of jobs. HR professionals need to be on top of their game to ensure that not only are those leaving being treated with dignity, but also those left behind.

“Unfortunately, the worst thing to happen to these organisations isn’t the fact that these redundancies take place, it’s the poor leadership which follows the redundancies,” said Tony Wilson, managing director of TeamCorp Australia.

“It can result in a lack of trust in management and a feeling of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ which leads to poor productivity, distractions and a disengaged workforce.”

Wilson added that even though tougher economic times called for cost cuttings, the wisest move employers could make is to help their leaders to manage through these times.

“Leaders have a direct impact on the engagement and productivity of their staff; after all, people tend to leave their bosses, not their jobs,” he said.

“Large-scale redundancies may save money in the short-term, but they can be crippling if not accompanied by well thought out leadership plans.”

For those left behind, a common experience is having to deal with seeing one of their colleagues emerge from a suddenly scheduled meeting, pack up their things and get escorted to the door.

Dr Hilary Armstrong, director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching, told HC earlier this year that rather than being relieved and elated that it’s not them, the feelings for those remaining are less helpful: guilt if they are the one who did the firing leading to feelings of distress (“why am I in this position?”); wakefulness; self-doubt (“surely there was another way?”); or even shame. "These all come under the umbrella of survivor guilt,” she said.

Other versions of survivor guilt include “Why her and not me?” leading to stress from uncertainty and lack of confidence; or “Will I be next?” leading to feelings of insecurity. Another is resentment at being the one left to clean up the mess, or taking up the slack left by shouldering others’ work. Not to mention being the one who delivers the layoff message, which can unleash emotions that can potentially overwhelm the messenger and lead to long-term effects.

Armstrong added that being able to express the emotions of survivor guilt is important. Questions such as “why not me?”, negative thoughts such as “he was better than me”, “my performance is not that good”, “probably they chose me because I’m cheaper” need to be given expression and normalised, as does the effect of further guilt arising from thoughts like “I should be grateful, or relieved”. Furthermore, as the workload increases and people are asked to take up the slack, survivor envy can set in: “I envy them, I am left to clean up the mess, I wish I had been laid off”.

“The important thing is that it is normal to need to express these things and they are normal reactions,” Armstrong said.

A leader’s role is to give those who remain behind confidence about their future. Open discussions about the situation with employees about why retrenchments are happening and what can be expected in the future will lead employees to feel more secure and engaged with the company.

“Communicate at the beginning, middle and end of the event in order to minimise lack of productivity, de-motivation, worry and frustration amongst staff,” said Bruce Anderson, managing director of Lee Hecht Harrison Australia.

Consider the communication channels and ensure that there is timely communication with all relevant parties, including line managers. “Help them prepare by providing them with necessary information, key messages and answers to expected questions,” Anderson added.

What should be more worrying to employers is what the research says about the long-term impact of retrenchments and layoffs, Armstrong said, and those who don’t lay the groundwork now may regret it later on.

“Consequences such as reduced productivity and engagement can linger for many months, or even years, especially when the process has not been handled gracefully,” she said.


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