Few consider the incredibly challenging aspects of management as they step into a promotion. One of these is the responsibility of “downsizing”. No matter how you slice and dice it, downsizing a team is a difficult task.

So, how do you approach this with professionalism and kindness, whilst achieving a well-considered result for the business? Importantly, how do you reach the right outcome without creating a lasting, negative impact on several lives in the process?

Sadly, I have been involved in more downsizing projects than I like to remember. From my perspective, there are definitely ways to minimise the angst – for both those directly impacted and their families, but also the “survivors” who are left in the organisation after the process has been completed.

Not all downsizing is created equal

The process of redundancy is quite different to terminating a poor performer. Although that is also not a walk in the park, it is usually easier to justify the outcome when an individual has been given opportunities to improve and has failed to do so. There are facts that you can utilise to keep the emotions at bay – for both of you.

In that scenario, if you have managed the situation well, the individual is aware they are not performing or there is an issue. The final discussion is not the only discussion and there should be clear documentation. This makes it a bit easier for both parties.

However, these discussions are still difficult. The best managers are adept at handling them well. Being trained and having the opportunity to practice these skills in a safe environment first helps a great deal.

The importance of being trained

I remember clearly the first time I was involved in a termination meeting. I was living in England and I was young, naive and very new to a career in Human Resources. My manager explained the circumstances in detail and explained that the person had been found guilty of theft. Furthermore, the individual had confessed to the crime.

According to my manager, participating in a termination of this nature would form part of my essential development as a HR professional. Of course, what I didn’t expect was that I would know the employee personally – she was a friend of mine.

Participating in the termination meeting was a gut wrenching introduction to the realities of the business world. I was lucky – I was coached before-hand about the importance of clear facts and managing emotions in the room. I was also coached about how to maintain dignity for the individual (despite their crime) and the importance of safeguarding the reputation of both the organisation and the terminated employee.

Whilst maintaining the most professional decorum that I could muster, I watched as my friend was terminated. Despite her crime, she was treated with professionalism and kindness. I have never forgotten that lesson.

Redundancies

Redundancies are a different experience for both the recipient of the message and the person delivering it. I have seen both sides of the coin, and once you have done that, your perspective is forever altered.

Unfortunately, managing redundancies is an occupational hazard for both managers and HR professionals. Nowadays, you would be a very rare individual if you had not experienced redundancy either first hand or through a friend or loved one.

Remember: a true redundancy is when a role no longer exists. A true redundancy is due to no fault of the individual nor is it performance related. Delivering such a message is incredibly delicate and requires compassion, empathy and tact.

To master the delivery of this message, you need a reasonable dose of emotional intelligence[1] and you need to be focused on the individual. Having conducted many of these meetings, I can confirm that you can never predict an individual’s reaction. Shock is not uncommon and the individual may not comprehend all aspects of the discussion as a result.

You need to be calm, patient, caring and compassionate. You need to understand the range of emotions that may take place – including shock, anger, bargaining, relief and despair.

It is also critical that you do not make assumptions about the likely reaction. Don’t assume that they will be fine, or that they were expecting the news or that the payout will make them happy. You truly have no idea how someone will react in that room, or in the short term after they exit. Be kind and be prepared to provide them with whatever support they need. That includes after they leave the organisation.

The importance of outplacement

Because of the uncertainty in the room when the news is delivered, the best advice that I can give you is to have an outplacement professional ready to help. Preferably this should be a well-seasoned professional who can help the individual through their range of emotions.

People react in all sorts of different ways when the news is delivered. Some are angry, many are sad, many are shocked and some are even happy[2].  However, providing them with immediate support around how to manage the roller coaster of emotions after that redundancy meeting is very important and will help enormously.

There is no real guideline as to how long it takes for an individual to move forward – it is a very personal journey. However, ensuring that the right professional is there to help is definitely best practice.

A major pitfall to avoid

One of the worst ways to handle a redundancy is to treat the employee like a criminal. I have seen this play out before, with some very senior individuals. One senior executive was cut off immediately and had to engage a lawyer to receive his termination pay – which was far less than he had seen others receive in the same organisation. That approach is not wise and will always have long term repercussions.

Most employees understand that they need to hand back security passes, laptops, phones and that they will need to do a hand over. However, making an individual feel like they are suddenly a criminal is never helpful – and especially in the long term. I know that I have been guilty of this in the past, and I still regret it to this day.

The thing to remember is that the world is an incredibly small place and there are hidden connections everywhere. That person that you treat badly today, could well be the person who determines your future at a later stage.  Nowadays, it is incredibly easy for your brand to be sullied by poor feedback. Jobs come and go, but your reputation is forever – both for personal and company brands.

[Click here to read my article on “Manners and the modern workplace”: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/manners-modern-workplace-kylie-sprott/ ]

What about the survivors?

What if you are left in a company that is downsizing and it looks like your work world has changed dramatically for the worse? Well, this is often the trickiest element of managing redundancies – keeping the survivors engaged and willing to keep going. The worst case scenario is that they quit, but still turn up to work and accept their pay…

Often the impact of redundancy lingers for an extended period of time in an organisation, and things rarely return to normal. Employees who haven’t been made redundant are often anxious and angry, becoming “unhappy stayers” who are tricky to manage.[3]

This is also a very difficult time for the HR professionals who have had to manage the downsizing, deliver the news and then work out how to re-engage the survivors. Many find this incredibly challenging, particularly if it is a continual round of redundancies. Ultimately, many opt to put their own name on the next list of casualties.

Having a clear vision and strategy is important. However, having strong and inspirational leaders who can articulate the vision and strategy with conviction is critical. Without the right leaders in place, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the organisation back on track.

Summary

So, how does one navigate the dark art of management? You need to understand that downsizing is an inevitable part of being a manager and your best bet is to make sure that you handle this responsibility with care and compassion. Seek out training and make sure that you understand the different types of terminations. Treat all individuals with kindness so that there is limited damage to them, to you and to the survivors left in the organisation.  After all, the corporate world is no stranger to the concept of karma.

[1] Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence”, Bantam Books, 1995

[2] Leisa Molloy, “7 things you shouldn’t do when making someone redundant”, Flourishing Minds Consulting, 2017 http://flourishingmindsconsulting.com.au/making-someone-redundant/

[3] Mira Katbamna, “Redundancy: What’s it like to be the bearer of bad news?”, The Guardian, 2009 https://www.theguardian.com/money/2009/mar/19/redundancy-human-resources-work