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Andrew Leigh

Maynard Leigh Associates

Director

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Why some survivors don’t survive

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The survivors of a redundancy programme need to be nurtured and treated with respect within an open and honest environment, otherwise they will think with their feet and work elsewhere, says Andrew Leigh.

 
 
 
In a much earlier incarnation, I once worked for an up-and-coming advertising company which made use of my services in the exalted position of post boy. It was my job to deal with the mail, including lugging the day’s completed correspondence to the nearby post office.
 
When a printers’ strike temporarily shut down much of the daily media providing the bread and butter for this ad agency its management panicked and began laying off staff.
 
To put it mildly the redundancies were traumatic. The place was in uproar, no one had any hard information and rumours dominated the communication landscape. It was quite usual to meet people I had previously seen as dynamic, well-adjusted individuals wondering around the building looking shell-shocked, until they emptied their desks and crept silently away to new pastures.
 
Despite my lowly position in the company, as a clear survivor of the redundancy programme my reaction was neither relief nor a sense of triumph. Instead, I too was left traumatised and inevitably what went through my mind was ‘it could easily have happened to me’; ‘I wonder if I will be next’, and ‘am I any good at my job?’
 
My next thoughts were equally predictable: ‘How can I avoid letting them make me redundant in the next round?’ followed by, ‘it’s time to get busy and look for another job.’
 

Victim of redundancy

 
Waiting for the axe to fall felt too much like waiting to be a victim, rather than a chooser. Redundancy victims will often be reactive and may go around saying things like ‘it wasn’t my fault’; ‘they did it to me’; ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ Victims are likely to wait around for the inevitable and are usually ill-prepared for the consequences.
 
In contrast, choosers tend to be people who are proactive and make sure that in some form they turn the situation to their advantage, taking, creating or even making new opportunities for themselves.
 
Unconsciously I had become a chooser, though at the time I would never have seen it like that. Being a small company I had access to the boss and knocked on his door and was duly ushered in. When I announced I intended to leave he looked genuinely shocked. There followed a curious conversation in which the boss tried to convince me that I had a great future ahead of me, that I was "someone we want to keep". But I was bent on leaving and by the end of the week I was out of there.
 
It is perfectly usual that survivors from a corporate upheaval start making plans for their future, including looking for another job elsewhere. Often the recent experience finally removes an unhealthy rose-tinted view of the organisation. They realise that their future is as much in their own hands as those of the company that currently employs them.
 

Poisoned culture

 
While redundancy programmes may leave the majority of people as survivors, the overall effect may be to poison the culture especially in companies where previously such steps have not been the norm. In this now adverse culture the survivors may simply be biding their time before they too move, and on their own terms. Their organisations also may be shocked to learn that the talent is voting with their feet.
 
Managing talent in a downturn is demanding and our recent report on this issue, Talent Management at the Crossroads, highlighted many useful pointers to how some of the best employers in the UK are approaching the challenge. It was apparent that the best companies are fully aware of the dangers of losing their talented survivors in the event of a programme of cut-backs.
 
Accordingly, these companies pay a lot attention to employees’ concerns and an important ingredient in HR strategy is how the company deals with the situation. For example, timely, open and frank communication is seen as an important way to mitigate the unsettling effects on the workforce.
 
A further feature of these outstanding companies was that they generally had clear plans for how to use their talent. They did not leave people in the dark, wondering what was going to happen next. At Bacardi-Martini Ltd, for example, the company turned a commercial decision to consolidate the business into a plan to help people build more secure careers within the company.
 
In looking after the survivors these companies also devoted a considerable effort to make sure people felt fully engaged with their work. There was variation in how these companies saw the task for instance: ‘The secret of engagement is really simple. It’s doing meaningful work and being treated fairly’; or ‘it is always striving to engage with people as individuals.’
 
"When you consider the amount of investment in the victims of redundancy, it is quite incredible that so little is invested in the survivors. After all, they are the ones who are important to the future of the organisation," says a senior consultant at ICAS, a behavioural risk consultancy that provides counselling and other psychological services.
 
To help survivors survive, consider these seven steps:
  1. Invest heavily in communication so that people know what is happening or likely to happen next
  2. Identify those most at risk of leaving, for example people with exceptional skills or ability, and make sure they feel cared for and fully engaged with their work
  3. Treat people as individuals; some survivors will cope better than others, so where necessary offer help and support such as coaching, mentoring, and counselling
  4. Encourage survivors to discuss their feelings about the situation and acknowledge the stress
  5. Find ways to reward and recognise the survivors so they feel wanted, not merely grateful to hold on to their jobs.
  6. Re-build teams with active team-building programmes
  7. Offer career enhancing learning, such as employability workshops
 
 
 
Andrew Leigh is a founder director of Maynard Leigh Associates and author a number of books on management, most recently The Charisma Effect, currently being translated into eight languages.
 
You can view his blogs on HRzone.co.uk here.
 
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Andrew Leigh

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