Redundancy is inevitably an emotional rollercoaster, both for employees and HR. But handled sensitively, with the help of a good outplacement programme, it can lead to a fresh start, says Helen McCormick.
Redundancy is an inescapable part of any HR role. It’s a potentially traumatic time, and not just for those employees directly affected – but it needn’t be. Bringing in an outplacement partner can help those leaving make the right choices, and offer valuable support to those left behind, including the HR team bearing the brunt of the emotional fallout.
Outplacement is not just about finding departing staff an equivalent post elsewhere. Redundancy can be a valuable opportunity to take stock and reassess where you are going in your job. Many people go on to find higher level jobs, and may choose to change career altogether. Others may opt to retire, enjoy a period of travel or rest, or even emigrate.
“It can be a chance to change,” argues Owen Morgan, head of commercial operations at consultancy Penna. “Just because someone happens to be a sales manager doesn’t mean it’s their dream job. A good outplacement coach can help them understand their skills and move them to a more suitable role.”
Sometimes the most difficult part of the process is persuading people to take up the service in the first place (see case study, right). “They argue that they don’t want ‘just any job’, but our role is as far away from that as it’s possible to be,” adds Morgan.
Communication is the key
HR’s key role is communication – telling staff what is happening, and what the company is doing to support them.
Tony Thornell, practice leader (transition) at consultancy Right Management, says: “Some people take it well and see it as an opportunity, while others are distraught. They may not have had an interview for 15 years, and feel they are losing not just their job, but their friends and social network.”
“The human element is crucial, and we can teach HR how to communicate better.”
Olwyn Burgess, client services director at consultancy Chiumento, agrees. “We work with HR to make sure a plan is mapped out, with robust processes in place to ensure all decisions will stand up to scrutiny,” she says.
Morgan stresses that HR must keep abreast of the legal situation. “This part of the law is constantly evolving, and things may have changed since you last engaged in this type of activity,” he says.
HR must ensure management delivers the message correctly. “Getting this right is quite difficult,” concedes Burgess. “It’s about communicating even when there is nothing definite to say managing that uncertainty.”
This includes communicating with the ‘survivors’ – those not facing redundancy. Keeping everyone – whether they are going or staying – informed and supportive of the process will ensure you maintain productivity, and help protect your employer brand.
“It’s crucial to remember the people left behind,” says Morgan. “They will see that the company is willing to invest in those leaving, and will think ‘what about us?’.”
Burgess agrees. “They may feel guilty about surviving,” she points out. “Bear in mind too that they may actually want to be one of the people to go, and that in some cases breaking bad news means telling someone they’re staying and not receiving a redundancy package.”
Work in partnership
Choosing an outplacement company is often a ‘distress purchase’. But by bringing them in early and working in a true partnership, HR will receive great support and look in control, says Burgess.
The outplacement partner can also offer emotional as well as practical support to the HR team. “HR bears the brunt of the emotional fallout during a redundancy process, which can be quite upsetting, especially if you are aware of employees’ individual personal circumstances,” says Burgess. “Some people are good at it others need more support. I’ve seen HR people leave an organisation because they are fed up with handling negative emotion.”
So how do you choose an outplacement company, and how do you assess the return on your investment in the service? There is, of course, a cost, which will vary hugely – from tens of thousands of pounds to move on a managing director after a large merger (as their reputation may be affected and they may end up fishing in a very small pond), to a few hundred pounds per person to find new jobs for a group of labourers. If you are trying to place people in very specialist positions, ensure the outplacement firm has the relevant expertise.
Flexibility and choice are key, argues Nicola Deas, regional practice leader at Right Management. “There are several generations in the workplace – those who use iPods and Wi-fi, home-based operators, on-the-move people, and those who have always been in traditional organisations and who may be rather nervous of technology.
“You have to think about how people access their outplacement programme to get maximum value. Some will prefer to access information mainly online, but for many it’s about human contact and interaction – advice on networking, researching the jobs market, interview skills, and constant feedback.”
As well as offering flexible ways of accessing outplacement programmes, HR departments should ensure that their outplacement partners are accountable for the success of the programme.
Thornell says: “Companies need meaningful measures – how many jobs were found, how useful was the process, what did employees think of the support? We ask these questions and act on the information.”
Burgess agrees that HR must measure the success of outplacement. “This is especially true if there is a long closure period, say of more than 18 months,” she says. “Has the outplacement partner become complacent, or continually improved its service? Have the objectives set for each individual been met. These can change, so this is sometimes difficult to assess.
“Broadly, what is the resettlement rate? Done well, outplacement can and should mean a period of redundancy turns out to be a positive experience for everyone involved,” Burgess says.
Joanne Martin, head of employment at Manchester-based law firm The Hardman Partnership, says: “Outplacement can be a particularly useful tool for any employer going through a redundancy situation. Employee morale will be extremely low, and even those who will remain in their jobs may not be as happy as they once were.
“An outplacement service demonstrates the employer’s commitment to the future of all its employees, and will help avoid a significant breakdown in the relationship between the employer and departing employees.
“Employees selected for redundancy may challenge that selection, or even the existence of a redundancy situation, by bringing a claim through an employment tribunal. Outplacement can help, as employees may be less inclined to commence proceedings if they feel they have been treated well by their employer.
“Outplacement may also act to limit an employer’s potential liability by assisting the employee in obtaining alternative employment and potentially reducing any claim they may have for loss of earnings.”
Top tips to avoid trouble
- follow a procedure when dismissing staff (on grounds of redundancy or otherwise), even if they don’t wish to discuss the situation or attend meetings.
- consult with your staff when redundancies are possible. To protect your business you must refrain from giving any indication that a decision has been made until after consultation has taken place.
- make allowances for emotions, but don’t be afraid to take control and move the process forward.
- be afraid to ask for expert help, even if you are an expert yourself – many brains are better than one when it comes to complex redundancies, staff transfers and outplacement.
- be tempted to dress ill health or performance issues up as a redundancy – it may seem like the soft option for the employee, but it could cost you in the long run at tribunal.
- let yourself be talked into calling a dismissal a redundancy when the employee is just trying to ensure their redundancy mortgage policy will pay out – this is insurance fraud.
Source: Julie Parsons, director, Jaluch
OUTPLACEMENT – Case study
Asif Malik was recently made redundant from his job as an assistant broadcast engineer at communications regulator Ofcom. Part of the outplacement package included three one-hour sessions with a Chiumento consultant.
Malik was at first reluctant to take up the service, unconvinced that it could benefit him. “I was sceptical at first, but my CV wasn’t working for me, so I went along to meet my consultant. He helped me redraft it, and advised me to post it on an online job site,” he says.
Malik’s CV has had more than 80 hits, and he had been offered several interviews. Now in his late 30s, he has spent his entire 18-year career with Ofcom, and felt he needed to brush up his interview skills, which Chiumento was also able to help him with.
“The advice has been constructive, and now I feel outplacement is invaluable,” he enthuses. “I am so impressed with my consultant that I’ve asked Ofcom to pay for more sessions, which it has agreed to do.”
Malik views his redundancy as a chance to rethink his career, and has decided to move into HR. “I’m studying for my CIPD Certificate in Personnel Practice, and looking forward to a complete change of direction and a new start.”