Provide proper support for ‘at risk’ employees

To allow "at risk" employees to start outplacement programmes during the transition phase makes their prospects less intimidating

When I moved from an in-house HR job to a career consultancy I thought I would be able to simply transfer my knowledge and experience from one role to the other. However, leaving the position of HR director for Krone (UK) Technique Limited, the UK subsidiary of a German parent company operating internationally, has led me to challenge my previously held beliefs on effective HR management, particularly around redundancy.

As an HR director, I firmly believed that employees should be fully involved in any change process and should understand if their role might be at risk during such times. I believed that communication should be frank and open, and that employees should be given as much notice of imminent redundancy as possible, to allow for both emotional and practical adjustments. Since employment protection legislation is designed and enforced to ensure that people are treated fairly, I interpreted these requirements by extending notice and trial periods in a belief that this was compassionate.

It is a far cry from where I now stand, as a managing consultant at Sanders & Sidney, meeting people every day who have been made, or are facing the prospect of, redundancy. In applying the letter of the law and informing employees that restructuring puts their roles "at risk", I see people who suddenly find themselves in a bewildering no-man’s land, while they face an agonising consultation period that is designed to allow alternative employment to be sought.

The reality is that decisions have already been made and opportunities assessed, and it is highly unlikely that suitable roles can be pulled out of the hat at the eleventh hour. The decision to restructure will have involved much analysis and soul-searching and the company will have already done all it can to re-deploy people, having no wish to lose valuable resources. Meanwhile, the individual concerned is on death row, told that life with the company is likely to end but that a reprieve is being sought.

In my experience, those involved face a daily roller coaster of emotions – some days determined to carry on as normal, interpreting any positive conversations as possible opportunities to stay. On other days, embittered by the feeling of no longer being valued, they wildly fire off CVs for all sorts of unsuitable jobs in an effort to take control of their future.

Individuals will often find themselves unintentionally alienated by colleagues who are uncertain of how to react to someone facing redundancy. And in misguided attempts at diplomacy individuals can be excluded from teams and meetings because they will no longer be part of the future. Added to this, the employee often has to face returning home each evening to an anxious partner who wants to know if there’s been any news, only to repeat that "there might be something, but it’s not clear yet".

I never thought that I would see the advantages of the dreaded brown envelope, delivered to an individual on a Friday and terminating their employment with immediate effect. While I still see this as unnecessarily brutal, at least that person knows where they stand. It is a short, sharp shock but with nowhere else to go, they are forced to move on and look forward.

Good companies are concerned about getting it right, but caring for people isn’t just about giving correct notice, it’s about providing the proper support as well. Companies are often nervous about compromising their redundancy status so do not allow "at risk" employees to start their outplacement programmes until redundancy is confirmed. But to my mind, support during this transition phase is critical and often, the prospect of redundancy, like any fear, is far more intimidating than the reality.

Hazel Bunstan is a management consultant at Sanders & Sidney

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