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A programme of redundancies is traumatic for everyone concerned. Most people’s thoughts are with those who have lost livelihoods and who, in the current climate, may struggle to find new jobs.

Yet among those who remain, a Survivor Syndrome can kick in. Employees feel guilty about keeping their jobs while friends and colleagues lose theirs. This is a dangerous time for a business. Employees can end up “circling around the drain”, wondering who is next to get the push, while their performance and enthusiasm drop off rapidly. Anger, irritation and cynicism can kick in. Employees who feel they have little future with an organisation often end up working to rule, contributing just the bare minimum.

A survey of 500 employees in UK enterprises by MHR found that even when employees leave voluntarily, 26 per cent of those remaining blame management for their departure. 

Reset the company culture immediately
Regular and honest communication between a leadership team and its workforce is how an organisation avoids most of these problems. There is no substitute for it.

A 2004 study of Survivor Syndrome by the Institute for Employment Studies stressed that early and straightforward communication is essential. Unfortunately, quite the reverse is all too common in times of crisis, when leadership teams pull up the drawbridge and cease communication, which destroys confidence, generates rumours, damages business confidence and ultimately causes more employees to leave.

Instead of retreating into the boardroom, senior leaders need to give employees the most complete picture they can, as soon as they can. They should provide timelines about future developments and be prepared to admit they don’t know something while giving a firm commitment to supply the answer when available.

By following this approach, built around frequent and open communication, management will reset the company culture, building on what was good beforehand. This could include increased remote working and flexibility in terms of hours.

Whatever it is, quick action to communicate will restore productivity and stop the drain-circling and demoralisation. This is vital when so many employees are isolated and working from home because of the coronavirus.

Workforce anxiety is understandable. Official figures from August show nearly 700,000 fewer people were in work than in March and with the government’s furlough scheme ending on October 31, more lay-offs are expected.

This is why senior teams cannot simply view company culture as a new set of bullet points and expect employees to come in the day after colleagues have been made redundant as if nothing has changed.

Communication helps allay anxiety
After a restructure the remaining employees will constantly worry about how they will cope and where the business is going. What does it all mean for me? Where am I going in life?

It is because of these anxieties that the leadership team and HR must go out and communicate. An organisation should look to its employee assistance programme and tell struggling employees that counselling sessions are available, or that mental health first-aiders are on hand. For some employees, a 15-minute discussion with the person they see as responsible for the restructure will help very significantly.

The problem is not just that performance will drop off if people’s concerns are not addressed, they will also start to suffer metal health issues which will cause lost productivity. Eventually this will lead to employee departures, which is especially disruptive if they have important skills that meant they were spared redundancy.

Be realistic with the “survivors”
In the current economic conditions, employees should be warned to prepare themselves for an inevitable slow-down in internal promotions and for changes in their job roles and a freeze on annual pay rises. Many people may find themselves effectively redeployed. And they should also be made aware that career development courses may be curtailed.

Business leaders must accept that their people want to know what’s happening, even if the news is bad. A CEO may have to explain that more redundancies are necessary to give the business breathing space and time to formulate a new strategy. As far as possible, there should be a clearly stated plan and bosses must not employ euphemisms. If people are going to be laid off, they should say so.

Redundancies should not come as a shock
Redundancies should not therefore come as a surprise. Business leaders must be honest and ask employees about mitigation or methods of avoiding job losses. The whole business should be engaged and not just a handful of workers.

This is where more sophisticated employee engagement platforms put enterprises at a great advantage. Organisations with such platforms will have open channels of communication with their workforces, who are accustomed to two-way conversations using social media-type functionality. The habits of good and frequent communication are more likely to be embedded in everyone. It is also much easier for managers to gauge morale and performance through regular, scheduled one-to-one check-ins that fill in the larger picture of organisational health.

Any cause for celebration may seem distant during and immediately after a restructure, but when it does come, it should be shared across the whole organisation. New contracts, the success of reorganised units, work anniversaries, CSR initiatives, and most all, new recruits – they all need to be acknowledged across an enterprise’s internal communication channels. These are the vital signs of a vibrant business where people have a future.

Conclusion – trust is essential
The key to recovering from the trauma of a major restructure is to implement regular communications before, during and immediately afterwards. Redundancy is not about the process alone, but about what happens subsequently.

Informing employees early on about redundancies and taking the initiative to reset the culture immediately afterwards are both utterly essential if an organisation is not to be caught in a downward spiral. Regular, honest communication with the entire workforce, and the maintenance of an open dialogue are essential. When things are hidden, trust is lost and trust is the biggest asset of all for a business with many employees facing Survivor Syndrome.

Andy Davies, Head of Global Enablement, MHR

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