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Weathering the storm

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 05 March 2013. Posted in Leadership, People

If the threat of redundancies is on the horizon, battening down the hatches and boarding up the windows may not be the best approach. Instead, engaging directly with staff can be a better way to avoid long-term structural damage

Weathering the storm

Given the recent news that Britain has been stripped of its triple-A credit rating – not to mention that the pound fell to a two-year-low as a result – it seems that economically it’s not quite clear skies ahead. Fortunately, few businesses will be faced with such a stark future that they’ll be looking at large-scale redundancies but for those that are, it’s worth knowing there are plenty of ways you can work with your staff to prepare for inclement weather.

When the barometer’s reading wet and windy, one of the first things you’re going to want to know is how soon you should share your concerns with your staff. “When employees call us, they very rarely complain that they’ve been consulted too early,” says Andrew Cowler, a conciliator at ACAS, a non-profit organisation that helps resolve employment disputes. Including staff in the process often reduces the chances of them feeling they have been intentionally kept in the dark. 

Cowler continues: “Staff can normally tell if something’s not quite right or if someone’s trying to pull the wool over their eyes, so honesty and being really frank and open is probably a good idea – without being tactless or scaremongering.”

But there are other valid reasons, staff morale aside, for letting your team know early. Employers are obliged to provide a reasonable consultation period and the longer staff have, the more solid your legal standpoint. “It has to be with enough time to be effective and meaningful as a consultation process and there are legal minimums if it involves more than 20 people,” says Cowler. 

More significantly, however, being open with your staff provides valuable time for staff to find different, more creative ways to approach cost-cutting or address shortfalls. “It can bring out ideas that may lead to the redundancy situation being avoided completely,” explains Cowler. “Invite people to be a part of the solution, rather than just victims of a bad situation.” Including staff in this process can recognise the valuable knowledge they might have about the ins-and-outs of the business.

This can take different forms; for example, there may be staff within your organisation who have a desire to change their working pattern but have hitherto felt like it wouldn’t be an option. Cowler explains: “They might jump at the chance to drop a couple of days a week and neither side really knew that before the opportunity came up.” Often, the ingenuity of the staff may mean that they see potential solutions that their managers are unable to. “They may have ideas for multi-tasking or putting something in place that would make efficiencies without the need to get rid of people,” he says.

Another method useful to minimise the human cost of redundancy is redeployment. It’s worth noting you can’t necessarily force people to take positions that aren’t equivalent to their current roles. “You couldn’t say to somebody, ‘You can’t work 40 hours a week; we’re going to put you down to 20,’ because that might not be seen as a suitable alternative position,” Cowler warns. But it is worth spending the time talking to staff, looking at their skill-sets, their desired work patterns and asking whether they have identified any other roles they think they’d fit. “If there are suitable alternative roles in terms of redeployment, it’s much better to do that and retain the skills within the business than to make people redundant."

Unfortunately, even after the most inventive attempts to keep a hold of talent, sometimes redundancies become entirely unavoidable and at this point it’s not as simple as handing out termination notices. An employer needs to bear in mind that redundancy in itself is a very expensive process and because of this it is absolutely vital to plan ahead. “There is no point paying out lots of money in redundancy to get rid of six people from one department then in six months times realise that’s where the growth is now,” says Cowler.

Additionally, while from a legal perspective it is up to the business to decide where it cuts roles, it’s important to have a clear and transparent selection process. “It needs to be something objective and that can be measured and evidenced,” Cowler explains. “Productivity, aptitude for work, skills and qualifications; they’re really the key ones that can be backed up and explained.” This serves two key functions. Firstly, it means, in the unlikely event the decision was legally challenged, that there is a record supporting any decisions made. More importantly, however, it means employees can trust that there is an accountable process in place. He continues: “It’s much easier for the employees to accept what’s going on and why it’s happening if it can be justified.”

Despite appearances, just because the worst of the storm has passed that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t still felt. An oft-experienced after-effect in these situations is the ‘survivor syndrome’ that commonly accompanies bouts of redundancy. “It is something we come across, people that genuinely feel guilty for staying in the business,” says Cowler. 

But the important thing is to communicate with staff throughout the redundancy process. “It’s a case of actually thinking about how is this affecting people and checking in on them,” he says. “Because that’s the most important thing – that they feel engaged and included.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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