Downsizing with dignity

What is it like to handle layoff after layoff in an unpromising economic environment? We asked the vice president of HR at one of the world’s largest mining firms to find out.

Despite multiple layoff announcements in an increasingly hostile energy sector, Peabody Energy has still managed to stay afloat while remaining the largest private sector coal company in the world.
Geoffrey Woodcroft, vice president of HR at Peabody Energy Australia, spoke to HRD about what it takes to downsize in such a tough environment and how his HR team managed to pull through during these difficult times.
“One of the more challenging aspects of our repositioning effort is reducing our workforce,” he said. “No company ever wants to go down that path, but HR plays such a key role in planning for and executing workforce reductions.”
“How we treat our people as they exit the organisation speaks volumes about the company, and we’ve managed that process with respect and understanding and I’m very proud of that.”
Woodcroft notes that although the focus is often on talent acquisition and talent management, HR usually overlooks what happens to that talent during a downturn.
“I would say nothing creates more credibility for an HR function than how well it plans for, and implements, a workforce reduction process,” he said.
HR professionals who have yet to be involved in large-scale reductions cannot imagine what it is like to lead an HR team through tougher economic times, he added.
“The organisation looks to HR to drive these processes, and when it is done well the business really sees the value that HR adds to such a difficult situation.”
Throughout these turbulent times, Woodcroft and his team still maintained focus on developing supervisors and managers within the firm.
“In tough times, the roles of these employees become even more demanding and stressful given the amount of change being experienced,” he said. “We’ve looked closely at what we can do ourselves to add value to the business rather than outsourcing.”
To do this, the firm has developed and facilitated its leadership training programs internally, focusing on key aspects of leadership development as well as a module on continuous improvement (CI).
“Each participant is required to work on a CI project as part of their development journey, and these projects have delivered millions of dollars in savings and productivity improvements to the business,” he said.

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