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Rob Bailey

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Redundancy: It’s a psychological thing


Redundancy is a deeply difficult and disruptive experience for employees and organisations alike. Rob Bailey and Jenny Kidby explore how psychometric tools can bring clarity, and kindness, to redundancy situations.

For decades, psychometrics have given employers a reliable and scientific basis to make difficult people decisions. Objectivity in these can easily become contaminated by ‘gut instinct’, personal favouritism and subjective impressions. Psychometrics can help bring a degree of accuracy and precision to this.
Decisions in redundancy situations have a massive impact on those who stay as well as those who go. When made on an emotional or non-transparent basis, these decisions could not only leave the employer with the wrong mix of talent for the mission ahead, but could also result in legal difficulties.
Used as part of a mix of tools, psychometric instruments such as the 16PF add greater validity to, and an evidence base for, such decisions. However, their long term credibility could be undermined by the fact that many employers make some basic mistakes. These aren’t tools that should be used carelessly. It’s important to understand not only when to use them, but how to use them well.

When not to use psychometrics

The most common mistakes can be grouped into six key areas:
  1. When the psychometric instrument being considered is only suitable for developmental purposes. Generally speaking, if an instrument isn’t suitable for recruitment, it isn’t suitable for redundancy either. The best instruments are those that give results which can be mapped onto specific aspects of a job role, such as the 16PF.
  1. When there is much stronger evidence already available for deciding which staff should be made redundant. Psychometric tests are incredibly useful for learning a vast amount of information about a given individual, quickly. However, in redundancy decisions, employers will often be looking at people that they’ve seen at work for a period of time already. Before relying too heavily on psychometrics, make sure things like performance appraisals, measures of output and feedback from colleagues and customers are looked at carefully. If they don’t give you what you need – and this situation should be rare – only then should you consider using psychometrics.
  1. When the role is unique to an individual. If only one role and one individual is to be made redundant, psychometrics tests are unlikely to have any relevance. In this situation, the redundancy should be decided on business needs, not on the personal qualities of the incumbent.
  1. When a redundancy decision has been made already. Psychometric tests should not be used as a retrospective justification for a decision that has already been made. ‘Fishing’ for evidence in the psychometric tests is not appropriate.
  1. When the psychometric information is out of date. If psychometric results are more than 12-18 months old, they should be considered out-of-date and unsuitable for any use, especially redundancy decisions.
  1. When the psychometric information was initially collected for a purpose irrelevant to the new role. Psychometric instruments can be incredibly nuanced – it’s what gives them a high degree of practicality. It also means that, if you use a psychometric tool to decide what training courses a person would most benefit from, it would be dangerous to translate the results to inform redundancy decisions. It could even be illegal – the use of test results for a purpose other than that for which they were originally intended may contravene provisions of the Data Protection Act.
So, you’re avoiding the basic pit-falls but having decided these tools provide added value to your processes, you now need to make sure you use them correctly.

Using them for best results

When it comes to redundancy situations, psychometrics and psychological principles should broadly be used in one of the following ways:
  • Outplacement counselling. Once redundancy decisions have been made, psychometrics can be very useful as a basis for outplacement advice. Personality and ability data can help the individual (and potentially a career counsellor) to consider the most suitable employment possibilities. For example, the MBTI tool can help an individual understand themselves better, and therefore consider where they would most like to invest their energies and make use of their natural style. Instruments, such as the Strong Interest Inventory, could help the individual to identify new occupational opportunities worthy of consideration.
  • Select-in situations. Psychometrics can be incredibly useful in ‘select-in’ situations; that is, situations where old roles have become redundant and an employer needs to choose from the existing workforce to fill newly created roles. This is most common during restructures which may see redundancies occur. Psychometric assessment can help to predict future performance fairly, particularly as the role is new and the candidates have not undertaken it before. This will mean that candidates are assessed on their likely performance in the role, not on irrelevant assessment of past performance in a different role.
  • Survivor team development. Where teams have gone through a restructure, there is likely to be a major impact on the way that they function and relate to one another. Even if team members have not been lost it is likely that teams will benefit from spending some time considering how they work together and how to move forward. Using specialist workplace psychology consultants to find ways of re-motivating, energising and engaging team members to focus on their business objectives can be very effective. The role of the line manager here in maintaining engagement and commitment is key, and managers need to make sure they are addressing their own emotional needs as well as supporting others through difficult times (something tools like the Firo-B can help with).
When used correctly, psychometrics and the psychological principles that underpin them can inject a much-needed degree of clarity and science into what is a highly emotionally-charged atmosphere. Given the high stakes of redundancy situations, it’s especially importantly that these tools are used in the most appropriate and effective way.
Redundancy decisions carry high short term impact and long-lasting consequences. If you stick by the guidelines set out here, these are decisions you can make with much greater confidence.

Rob Bailey and Jenny Kidby are principal psychologists at workplace psychologists OPP