Professional dilemma

When a company announces mass redundancies responsibility for handling the
details naturally falls to HR. But at often their most hectic period ever, HR
staff may have to find space to search for a new position themselves. Three HR
professionals explain what they learnt when faced with this unenviable task.
Phil Boucher reports

Whenever redundancy or relocation is mentioned HR tends to assume the mantle
of an emergency service for those most under threat. But what happens if HR
itself is one of the departments facing closure?

In this situation HR professionals are faced with the dual problem of looking
after the needs of the organisation as well as themselves. And very often they
will be handed a workload that makes both tasks impossible to fulfil properly.

The solution is to carry out the job well while making an effort to secure
employment elsewhere, says Dianah Worman, CIPD adviser on diversity. "The
major issue is to behave professionally at all times. But HR can’t just put a
ring fence around itself – it has to keep its eye on the ball."

In practical terms that means taking care of such things as pension
arrangements for other people, but also arranging certain times of the week to
apply for jobs and arrange interviews. HR is also the enviable position of
being able to analyse the viability of the company through its unique access to
company information. "HR has the advantage that it is better versed than
anyone else in how redundancy is handled and the expectations staff have of the
company," adds Worman.

In light of this it is no surprise that the majority of HR professionals
recently described the redundancy process as ‘traumatic’ in a CIPD survey of
563 organisations nationwide. Also 22 per cent indicated redundancy had had a
considerable effect on their working life and 16 per cent felt it also impeded
on their home life.

There are no statistics on how HR professionals feel when facing redundancy,
but they need to take into account the stress levels involved with such a huge
amount of work and emotional turmoil.

What redundancy ultimately demands is a common sense approach that allows
the organisation to use the function as a sounding board for advice, and
employees must feel they can turn to it for information. Above all, the
function must remain confident that it is doing the right things for everyone
concerned. As European HR director at Prudential Insurance Russell Martin says:
"It really comes down to handling it all in a professional and sympathetic
way and realising that redundancy is a strain on HR people as much as anyone
else."

Name: Sue Pyatt
Company: Fisons
Position: HR manager
Joined company: March 1996
Left company: January 2000

Four years after recruiting 110 people for Fisons’ technical operations
group, Sue Pyatt had the unenviable task of dismantling both the operations
team and the five-person HR function she had created to support it. As she was
only given six months to disband them both, it was a time of enormous stress
for both her and the rest of her team.

Initially, the main problem was there was so much work that Pyatt simply did
not have time to consider her own future. "To start with, it didn’t hit me
personally," she says. "I had to field so many questions that I was
wrapped up in the whole thing for the first two months. It wasn’t until then
that I suddenly thought: ‘Hang on I’m going to be out of a job in a few
months!’"

Pyatt decided to seek external advice and turned to outplacement consultancy
Penna Sanders & Sidney, which was to have an unexpected benefit. Her
consultant literally forced her to leave the office to concentrate on her own
problems. After that she meticulously planned her week and set aside some time
to concentrate on her own redundancy situation. "The hardest thing to do
is remember you have to look after yourself from a job perspective and your own
mental and physical wellbeing," says Pyatt.

Although these breaks took Pyatt away from the rigours of relocation and
redundancy, it went against the grain of her HR beliefs, she says. "It was
not a positive project so it was very difficult to stay professional and put on
the face of the company. But as an HR person I found it hard to put myself
ahead of the rest of the company as I instinctively felt I should deal with
other people’s problems first."

As Pyatt was heavily involved in the communication of information and
handling of redundancies it was not an easy thing to put into practice either.
Someone could walk into her office at any moment and ask her to deal with one
of a hundred practical questions relating to such things as pensions or the
redundancy package.

Eventually, Pyatt settled on an arrangement where she would not only
concentrate on her career at certain times of the week, but also take the
occasional break to treat herself to a day of relaxation – in her case,
shopping – to relieve the constant pressure.

"It is very important to carefully plan your time, be aware your
priorities are going to change and be ready to deal with that," she says.
"You need to think about yourself on a personal level and ensure you don’t
become over-tired or stressed."

As a result Pyatt successfully managed the tricky situation and secured a
job as a customer service manager at JSB Electrical in Cheshire. In 2000 she
became an HR consultant for Penna Sanders & Sidney.

Her advice to people going through a redundancy process is to always be
prepared to solve a problem at the drop of a hat.

"You need to keep professional and keep your mind on the job. But you
also need to find a way of getting balance into your life so that it doesn’t
take over," she says.

Name: Amanda Russell
Company: ITV Digital
Position: HR manager
Joined company: February 1998
Left company: May 2002

On 22 April 2002, ITV Digital’s management announced there were no buyers
for the faltering broadcasting company. Later that day around half of its 2,000
employees were made redundant and a skeleton staff was left to oversee the
gradual and very public closure of the company.

Amanda Russell was one of few HR professionals left behind to oversee this
closure. She had been one of the first people to join the company in February
1998, and had been heavily involved in setting up the HR department, creating
the company culture and developing the organisation’s policies and procedures.

Initially, Russell’s main difficulty was coping with the sheer pace of
change, as the announcement had been completely unexpected. And as the closure
was so high profile she found it almost impossible to leave the news behind.
"As well as suddenly having to live with the closure at work I had to live
with it in my private life as it was on TV and on the cover of all the
newspapers," she says. "Everyone was talking about it. It was really
stressful because it was all so sudden."

Russell left ITV Digital 30 days after the closure was first announced.
During that time she helped others look for jobs, write CVs and seek financial
help. She was so involved with helping others that she simply didn’t have time
to look for a job herself and is currently trying to find a new position.
"I didn’t tend to think of it at the time. I was so busy that I had to
immerse myself in the new task I had suddenly been given," she explains.

"I was so busy I simply couldn’t imagine that I wasn’t going to have a
job in a week’s time."

Despite this, Russell feels the experience has a positive side. Along with
learning how to cope in the event of company closure she has made several close
friends – drawn together through shared feelings of adversity, who are now
helping each other in the quest to find new jobs.

The experience has also enabled her to test her HR skills to the limit.
"It was important to stay very positive and practice what you
preach," she says. "All the good things about outsourcing came out
and I had to focus on my belief in these and HR skills I’ve learnt along the
way."

But Russell admits that in the last days of ITV Digital the remnants of the
HR team had become a mini recruitment agency. "It was quite strange
because we became a shoulder to lean on, but were also having to deal with
hundreds of recruitment agencies looking for staff."

To cope, Russell drew up a plan of what she needed to do with regard to the
administration of compensation and benefits and anything else that would help
employees such as pension scheme arrangements. Looking back she is quite glad
that the whole process was so hectic. "Being so very busy made the whole
thing much easier to cope with," she says. "The people who were quiet
had nothing to do but sit back and reflect on what was happening. I have the
immense satisfaction of knowing that I helped a lot of people to find a way out
of a very bad situation."

Name: Jo Larkam
Company: Prudential Insurance
Position: HR consultant
Joined company: September 96
Left company: February 2001

In January 2001, Prudential Insurance announced that its 80 direct sales
branches would be restructured into 15 regional offices. As a knock-on effect,
the HR function that supported the sales teams also had to restructure, with
the inevitable consequence that redundancies were made.

Jo Larkam, now a human capital consultant with Deloitte & Touche, was
involved in the restructuring process that involved the reorganisation of more
than 2,000 sales and support staff. However, this was compounded by the more
difficult task of selecting people for redundancy – including those in HR.
Larkam says: "Many of the team worked in a very difficult situation. They
were told their jobs weren’t going to exist in six to eight months but they
still had to support the rest of business."

Throughout the experience Larkam had to deal with the concerns and questions
of other people in the organisation while being unsure about her own future. To
cope with the demands of this dual role she decided that it was best to
maintain a highly professional approach and not be overly critical of the
organisation despite what was happening. "It was important to speak
positively about the new structure to keep up people’s morale," she says.

The fact that Larkam was facing redundancy helped her empathise with the
sales teams. She also believes the HR team bonded more closely as a result of
their shared sense of adversity. "It’s almost easier to support people if
you’re going through the same experiences yourself," she says. "It’s
a question of finding support and encouragement for everyone concerned."

Like many others in the HR function Larkam decided it was best to look for
another job and secured a position with Deloitte & Touche soon after the
restructuring announcement was made. She still remained focused on the task of
looking after the firm’s interests and those of its employees and maintains the
mutual support that existed within the HR team helped her to cope.

"We made sure that there was communication throughout the
organisation," she says. "We were also trying to be flexible to meet
individual demands to relocate and support the line managers who themselves
were supporting individuals who were losing jobs."

Larkam insists that the redundancy process was actually a very positive
experience for her – providing opportunities to learn new skills. She also
believes Prudential was good at making the whole process as voluntary as
possible.

She also contends that along with toeing the company line you need to find
people who can lend advice and encouragement on the situations you are facing –
whether they are inside the organisation or not.

More than anything Larkam believes it is important to utilise all of your HR
skills and to be aware that in a situation like this knowledge is very
definitely power. "You need to be aware of what options are available and
the level of support the organisation will give you. And to do this you need to
remember that HR has an advantage as it has access to a lot of information that
a lot of other people never see."

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