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Fifty Ways (or Managing redundancy for humans)

I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued but I have “managed” numerous exits in my career as an HR generalist: in fact, I was just wondering how many people have left the organisations I have worked for while I was there. Of course, I’ve got no idea, I have quite literally lost count. I have seen people leaving with dignity and with a swift (metaphorical) kick up the backside. I have seen people retire after many years of service and others not return after day one. I have been threatened with being stabbed and been thanked for dismissing someone for gross misconduct. I have watched people leaving with tears in their eyes and others gleefully waving red shoes through the window at their former colleagues (that one takes a whole lot of explaining: ask me about it over a pint and I’ll tell you the story one day).


It doesn’t matter what the reason is for the employment relationship coming to an end, there are almost always mixed feelings involved. In my experience, these mixed feelings are often more acutely felt where the reason is redundancy. Let’s face it, even the word “redundancy” is pretty unpleasant – suggesting superfluousness, that the individual has become surplus to requirements or in some way outlived their usefulness. There has been a “reduction in the need for work of a particular kind” (I always imagine that phrase being said in a shrill, officious, Monty Python-era John Cleese tone of voice) – your job is no more, it is an ex-job.

At some point, the unfortunate individual goes through the normal rituals of leaving a job and heads off into the sunset. The survivors carry on much as before, often with “who’s going to do that now Jim has left?”-type questions in their mind. What next for the departer? I have seen people truly blossom after redundancy, taking it as a licence to go and do what they really wanted to do but never had the capability to do it while they had a job to hold down. I’ve also seen people get sucked into an extended period of unemployment or a series of ill-advised jobs which have dented their personal esteem and probably damaged their longer term career prospects.

As with any relationship break up, how it ends is down to both parties. Even where there is ultimately a positive outcome for an individual, there’s nothing pleasant about the process of redundancy. No one enjoys it. It’s just One of Those Things in working life. So what can you as an employer do to make it as painless as possible? Yes, there are outplacement services and they can be helpful but more importantly (for my money) is how an organisation treats people who are leaving by virtue of redundancy. Whether your leaver just wants to slip out the back or make a new plan, how you support and treat that individual could prove to be critical, not just for that human being but also for their colleagues who are going to remain working for you.

The answer is easy if you take it logically: never forget that you’re dealing with a human being. You can be forgiven for sometimes needing to be reminded, especially if you are dealing with names on a spreadsheet rather than people sitting in front of you. But they will have fears and concerns as we all do when confronted by enforced change. They will have specific and unique challenges to face. Often, you can help with them – if they want to accept your help.

So what do I mean practically by “remember you’re dealing with a human being”? Here are some suggestions.

  • Be clear in your communications and give straight answers to straight questions
  • Consider what the impact of the information you are communicating might be – it’s an emotional time and you need to be prepared for emotions to be displayed, for better or worse
  • Respect that different people will react in different ways
  • There will be questions asked that you haven’t considered – be open and honest
  • Give people time to think about what you’re telling them
  • As far as possible, don’t treat them any differently during the process
  • Be genuinely open-minded about proposals they raise during consultation

Not only is there a strong moral argument for this approach (which I would argue should be persuasive enough) but there is a business case, for those who like that sort of thing. You may no longer need their services as an employee but they are going to leave your company with an impression of you as an employer and will communicate that to anyone they encounter. Money you spend on developing your “employer brand” will be wasted if people experience the opposite of your lovingly-crafted values and tell all of their friends and family what working for you is really like (from their experience).

So if you were to ask me what my one piece of advice on managing redundancies was, I’d repeat myself (at the risk of being crude): remember you’re dealing with a human being. There must be fifty ways to leave your employer – but as an employer, HR person or manager, you play a crucial role in deciding how that plays out for both of you.

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