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The cycle of grief: The key to handling redundancy


CycleGareth Chick discusses the ‘cycle of grief’ that all employees go through when redundancy is taking place – both those who are leaving and those left behind – and says that when HR professionals understand this, it could help them to cope better in redundancy situations.

Making staff redundant is probably the hardest element of managing staff, but often essential for business survival. But the truth is – in companies large and small – managers handle the process of redundancy badly. They fail to communicate the situation appropriately, neglect the wellbeing of staff leaving and do not re-engage with remaining staff quickly enough so they are left feeling flat, fearful and unmotivated, which in the long run impacts productivity.

Basic lessons include not over-apologising for the decision. People will understand that it is in the best interests of the company and the future of employment for the majority who remain.

“People in shock do not hear things straight and go into immediate denial.”

Next, managers should pay meticulous attention to the manner of communication. No employee should hear the news second hand, whatever it takes to communicate with any number of people on any number of sites.

Never underestimate the personal relief employees will be feeling that it was someone else and not them that was made redundant, or the degree to which they will need to get active again to make the whole exercise worthwhile. The best way they can honour their ex-colleagues is to make the company successful as quickly as possible. Standing around grieving does no one any good and guilt on the part of the leaders serves no purpose whatsoever.

The grieving process

The key to handling redundancy well is also recognising the psychological impact of redundancy on employees – those leaving and those remaining. Losing a job or a trusted colleague suddenly is a major shock and the reaction of an individual is generally similar to the grieving process of losing a loved one.

As managers leading people through redundancy – whether they are leaving or staying, we should remember the cycle of grief change mode discovered originally by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. It recognises the different stages that people go through to come round to accepting a dramatic change in their lives, and is relevant for any situation where people suffer trauma as a result of an unexpected event.

Understanding that staff will be moving through this cycle will not only enable managers to empathise with them, but it also makes their role as managers more clear. They need to move their employees through the following cycle to reach the final stage of acceptance quickly, which is when the business will get back on track.

  1. The cycle starts with the immediate emotional reaction to the news with shock and denial. People in shock do not hear things straight and go into immediate denial. As a manager delivering the news, you need to keep the message simple and actually quite brutal. The clearer the message, the sooner they will hear it. Watch out for denial and keep countering it by repeating the news.
  2. “Find some positive elements of the future to allow the employees to start owning and designing.”

  3. Once the person is ready to move out of denial, they move into anger. This is natural, even if they agree with the decision. They are angry because their life has been disrupted and they are now out of control. Someone is to blame. So as a manager you will be blamed; the company will surely be blamed. Don’t argue. Instead let them express their anger. Empathise with them; tell them you understand and that it’s ok for them to be angry.
  4. Dialogue and bargaining is the next stage in the cycle. This is their way of taking control back. Whilst they might still be quite emotional, they will now be more rational and open to debating. Managers need, in this stage, to do two things – first of all don’t go back on any element of the original decision, however appealing it might be given how reasonable the employee is being. Secondly find some positive elements of the future to allow the employees to start owning and designing. This starts the process of giving back some control and therefore embedding the acceptance.
  5. The next frustrating stage is depression and detachment. Yes, that’s right – we’ve just got people all positive about the parts of the new plan that they can own and design, feeling quite smug that the fight’s over, and then suddenly they all go quiet. They look defeated, beaten and down. Don’t be phased by this stage. Give people a little space; empathise and listen; then let the final stage of the cycle run its course.
  6. Remember that in employment situations, this depression and detachment does not last long. People eventually get fed up of feeling low, and it only takes one person, one leader-for-a-day, within the group to stand up one day and say “come on guys, let’s get on with it”, and the cohort is ready to move. A good manager will spot the leader for that stage and encourage them. And move they do – on to acceptant and this is when your business will be ready to move forward.

Gareth Chick is a director of Spring Partnerships, a UK business consultancy based in Buckinghamshire which he co-founded in 2003.

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