Being made redundant can be a distressing experience for many workers – particularly if the news comes unexpectedly. But what of the bosses charged with overseeing the cull and managing the aftermath?
How stressful is it to sit on the knowledge that cuts are in the offing; break the bad news to those deemed surplus to requirements; get more work out of the fewer who remain, and keep the team’s spirits up so productivity doesn’t slump?
I felt guilty that I had to dehumanise the process.
Very, says Joanne Roberts, who went through the process several years ago in a former role as general manager of a national retail chain.
After committing to expansion on multiple fronts, including internationally, the business was buffeted by the GFC and found itself battling to reverse a dramatic decline in foot traffic at a location which had previously been one of its busiest.
“We weren’t prepared for extreme unforeseen circumstances,” Roberts says. “The CEO could have put personal money in…or else if we’d stretched too far it would have bankrupted the whole business.”
Staying the course
Cutting the headcount by 10 per cent emerged as the best strategy for getting the business back on firmer footing and ensuring its survival long term.
While the economic rationale made sense, remaining detached throughout the process was a major challenge.
“I look back and it was an awful time,” Roberts says. “It’s hard to make decisions on who to let go because it’s not a performance based decision. I felt guilty weighing up who had to go.”
While she continued to remind herself to focus on the business benefits rather than the emotional aspects, doing so was not easy.
“I felt guilty that I had to dehumanise the process,” Roberts says. “I had to make decisions quite quickly – I had an obligation and a responsibility to my bosses – but you can’t entirely switch off the personal.”
Particularly not when staff respond with tears to the news that they’ll be finishing up on Friday.
“You never know what the right thing is to say and part of you wants to say, ‘just forget about it’,” Roberts says. ‘”You can’t say, ‘I know how you feel’. You need to reaffirm that it’s not personal and that it was nothing to do with their performance.”
After the cull, Roberts says she worked without taking a day off for three months, to ensure organisational changes were bedded down and remaining employees felt confident the storm had passed.
“You need to show staff that you’re invested in the business and in their job security,” she says. “I didn’t want them to feel we were in a terrible place and that they had to look elsewhere. I had to be very positive and show staff that we were all in it together and [that we] were fine.”
This time it's personal
Careers consultant Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts has advised dozens of companies on redundancy programs and believes the toll that having to slash their team takes on managers can be considerable.
“It’s the worst part of being a boss,” he says. “It’s very personal, especially when people have worked for you for a long time. You may have hired them, you know their personal circumstances… As a manager, there’s nothing you can do.”
Having to sit on the news for weeks before it’s shared with staff is stressful, so it’s important to set some personal boundaries when you do start to give people their marching orders.
“You can’t be their shoulder to cry on – things go haywire when managers try or want to play this part,” Trevor-Roberts says. “You have to be a little bit clinical. Give the announcement to staff – make very sure they understand what’s going on in the process and what support is available.”
Assuaging the concerns and boosting the spirits of those who survive the cull can be a challenge for months afterwards.
A morale lapse is inevitable but it’s the boss’s job to rebuild engagement with staff as quickly as possible, Trevor-Roberts says.
Expected to step up
If it seems too tough, it’s perhaps a sign you’re not management material, business consultant Alexandra Tselios believes.
“If you’re deserving of a manager’s wage then you have to be able to step up and have conversations that are uncomfortable,” she says.
Veteran business consultant Mark Everson agrees. He’s held general manager positions in several industries and had to make people redundant on more than one occasion.
While no one enjoys seeing staff off, approaching the matter in a business-like fashion and staying focused on the issue at hand – usually pulling a company back into profitability – minimises the personal stress involved, he believes.
“You’ve got to be able to manage those feelings…if you do it with honour and integrity it’s nowhere near as stressful,” Everson says. “You need to understand the reality and address it in a calm and compassionate manner.”
Have you had to make staff redundant? Was it the hardest thing you’ve had to do, or all in a day’s work?