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Nigel Watson

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Lessons from France Telecom – handling restructures


Performance culture expert Nigel Watson of Q4 Solutions explores why the role HR can play in restructuring is so vital, ensuring staff are mentally prepared and are working within a supportive culture in order to avoid problems like those seen at France Telecom.

The recession has forced many businesses to review how they operate and in an effort to cut costs and streamline processes, some are facing the prospect of restructure and possible redundancies. A few months ago we saw revelations that France Telecom was experiencing high levels of suicides following a huge restructure. Having worked with organisations that have experienced suicide problems in the past, I voiced concern at the time that urgent action was needed to manage the communication breakdown inside the organisation and to help breed a new culture that ‘has its roots in performance not in power.’

In my opinion, it wasn’t that the actions and behaviour of management at France Telecom caused people to commit suicide, but more the fact that the management’s behaviour was likely to have been a catalyst, bringing previously buried or covered up feelings to the surface. An increasingly pressurised work environment coupled with emotional pressures at home leave employees with literally no escape and draws home the real reason why the right kind of leadership style is so critical to the welfare and success of individuals in an organisation, particularly in fast-paced, cut throat industries.

What France Telecom needed to help it through the turbulent process of restructuring was to better engage with their workforce. To do this, they needed clarity of mission, purpose and communication to avoid losing equity in the relationships between people in the organisation. Yes, process and controls are important, but they must better enable the people and not try to constrain them. They needed to focus on aligning everyone on RTR, (getting the ‘Right Things Right’).  This might sounds straightforward, but is often much trickier than it sounds.

RTR forms the basis of what makes performance culture so effective. It is where everyone wants the same performance outcome and takes pride in their results and not just management. To achieve this everyone needs to have to want it and be able to see a clear ‘what’s in it for me’. When this doesn’t happen, employees become increasingly disconnected from the organisation and it makes the task of improving performance even more complex.

So how can HR help soften the blow of a restructure? In cases of intense change, you’ll often find that employees are kept in the dark until the very last minute. Often, there is little thought for the people who will be disrupted by the process or for those who have the responsibility for maintaining the status quo. Increasingly, the biggest role that HR can play in such cases lies in facilitating open and frequent communication between management and the rest of the organisation.  When there is change or difficulty, particularly on a large scale like at France Telecom, the grapevine – or Chinese whisper effect – tends to kick in quickly as people try to predict the company’s next moves. This so often causes a temporary paralysis in performance as a result of inaccurate information permeating the business and generating unnecessary speculation, panic and fear, and may cause top talent to start looking elsewhere for a job. The biggest cause of team dysfunction and poor performance is the unknown and simply communicating more effectively could radically improve performance levels in many teams.

When working with effective partners, HR can often get to the route of problems that others in the organisation cannot, either because they are too close to situation or because employees fear the repercussions of being so open and honest with their direct line managers. Employee surveys are a good way of extracting information and can hold vital clues about the key issues of concern within the business that management may not be aware of and gives the business an opportunity to address any concerns and provide realistic timescales for solutions.

The problem with many organisations facing troubled times is that they want to come back to people with a solution, and often this solution can take many weeks to come to the surface. What these organisations fail to recognise is that people really do appreciate being given the chance to prepare. With the right communication strategy, even bad news can be good news if told early enough and will stop the grapevine in its tracks. HR can play a crucial role in ensuring that employees remain informed and adequately prepared for any changes that may be on the horizon and provide them with an outlet to vent any concerns and frustrations in a way that makes them feel supported and valued as the business moves to new ground.

Nigel Watson is Managing Director at Q4 Solutions: For further information visit



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