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Change management: Where did it all go wrong?

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Peter A Hunter author of Breaking the Mould looks at the irony of crass management practices within a centre for learning and excellence and explains why even business experts can get it wrong.


I witnessed some interesting behaviour from one of our premier management schools this summer. A behaviour that I have since discovered is not uncommon. During the course of the summer I met the PA of an eminent business school professor.

She was a bright, chatty lady who always enjoyed passing the time of day. On one occasion, however, when I asked her how her week was going she looked at me and I could see that she wanted to smile but the muscles in her face would not work and after a few twitches she gave up trying and looked down at the ground.

I asked her what was the matter and she told me that her department was undergoing change. So I asked her to explain what this meant. She explained that a ‘change manager’ was in position and everyone was waiting to see who would be up for the sack.

This woman, normally capable and confident had been reduced to a nervous wreck and it was all down to the way that the change process had been communicated and managed.

Her assumption was that change meant people were going to be sacked. So was she right?

I met the PA a month later and it emerged that there were a total of 30 senior PA’s involved in the ‘change’ process.

The chancellor and his senior team had announced the changes then brought in a consultant to ratify them. The PA’s had been informed that their fates would be divulged in six weeks time. While they were assured that no-one would face redundancy they were told that some unlucky ones would have to take up alternative employment but had no idea of the numbers involved.

The PA’s interpreted it as a done deal, believing that the decisions had already been made and that time was simply being spun out so that the managers could pretent that the decision was part of a reasoned process and not the arbitrary wielding of a financial axe by an accountant.

It was awful to watch the diabolical way a centre for excellence was treating its own staff, while still having the temerity to hold itself up as an example of learned guidance.

“What thickness is the ivory on their tower that prevents them seeing the consequences of their actions?”

Sadly this perception of the change process was not just held by the PA who I’d been taking to but others.

Unable to cope with the stress brought about by the arduous waiting game, the PA made the decision to look for alternative employment.

While she loved the job she had been employed to do she had lost trust in her employers and had begun to hate the job that she once cherished. She told me that even if a u-turn was made on the decisions to date she wouldn’t continue working for them because the trust had been eroded forever.

It is interesting to note that the bosses of all the PA’s affected had by this time been asked to re-apply for their jobs too. The PA that I knew told me that her boss had started to look for work elsewhere for the same reasons as she had. He had lost faith.

Last week I met the PA again and she told me that she and her boss had found new jobs, still working together, at a neighbouring school.

It does not have the same reputation but that is a situation that neither of them thinks will last for very long.

Having spent long hours discussing how diabolical the action of the college was the PA’s had come to realise that what was apparently just another example of crass bad management was in actual fact best practice.

As a centre of management excellence one of the techniques that was advocated to avoid making redundancy payments when you need to get rid of people is to make the workplace so stressful that they choose to leave.

The favourite technique for doing this is to make people re-apply for their own jobs.

I am happy to report in this instance that the management school were well and truly stuffed.

The PA and a number of others who had all found alternative employment, accidentally neglected to tell the college that they had done so.

The result was that the college, when nobody left voluntarily, were forced to announce the redundancies. Every single person was made redundant took their redundancy payment then walked straight into the new jobs that they had already accepted.

In addition, after the redundancies had been announced the college found that in the following month nearly all of the remaining PA’s had resigned.

The college had to make the redundancy payments to the people it had always intended laying off but in addition it also had the expense of recruiting new staff to fill the vacant posts.

It was a very expensive lesson to learn.


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One Response

  1. Crass Change Management
    The only bright spot for me in this sad case, is to know that we are not alone in New Zealand at picking processes that actually work against themselves. I could go on for years giving examples of how change in larger organisations has produced almost identical results to those discussed in the article………but the more serious situation here is that nobody seems to have learned. The best example I can give of this is that most often when major changes are undertaken and there is the likelihood of redundancies, they ask for voluntary redundancies. I despair. To me anyone with a half a brain should be able to work out that in these circumstances the ones who will take the money and run, are the best workers. Why? Because they know they can get another job, and if they are not regarded as crucial to the future of the organisation then as the article says, people loose that most crucial of all requirements in the employment relationship….trust.

    Well done for highlighting this so-called ‘Best Practice” as being Crass. In these circumstances the word fits perfectly. HR managers and senior executives, plese take note.

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