There is a right way and a wrong way to make people redundant. There is also a better way and a bad way to implement redundancy procedures.
On 30th October 2012 the Swiss bank UBS announced that it would be making up to 10,000 banking jobs redundant. The immediate response of the markets was positive but the subsequent response of the media was scathing. Here are two examples of the reports as to how UBS staff in London were told:
The Telegraph (30th October 2012)
UBS bankers in London were turned away from their offices on Tuesday and handed a letter putting them on “special leave”, just hours after the Swiss bank unveiled a radical restructuring to axe 10,000 jobs.
It was only when the UBS bankers had their passes refused that they realised they could be out of a job. Instead of being allowed into the bank’s City headquarters the traders were whisked to special offices on the fourth floor where they were handed an envelope containing details of the redundancy process.
“It was like a scene out of the Village of the Damned up there,” said one of the bankers.
“They said we would be getting two weeks paid leave and then we will be told what is to happen. I expect we’ll just get a call from human resources or lawyers telling us how much we are worth. We won’t be able to talk to our bosses.”
Turned away from their offices, the bankers congregated in The Railway Tavern, one of the only pubs in the area to open at 8am.
“We were banging on the door,” said one. “Today is for drinking, tomorrow is for thinking about our careers,” added another.
The Guardian Work Blog (6th November 2012)
Being made redundant is bad enough, but to be marched straight to HR when you turn up for work to be given the news, and told you are not required in work during the consultation period, is something else.
But this is what is reported to have happened to 100 UK-based staff of the bank UBS. The first the UBS staff were aware that something was wrong appears to have been when their security passes did not work.
They were sent home at the same time as being notified they were “at risk” of redundancy and were under a period of consultation (although this usually amounts to little more than one or two meetings at best). As is also usual, the UBS staff were given the opportunity to consider what alternative vacancies may be suitable for them.
The coverage reinforced the general public’s view of bankers as greedy and insensitive. In the short term the bungled handling of UBS employees has hurt the bank’s reputation. In the medium term it leaves a bunch of employees stewing away at home telling everyone who will listen about the way they were treated and it is unlikely that they will put a positive sheen onto the subject.
In the long term, if the final redundancy package is handled as insensitively as the early stages, then a large number of people will be released into the marketplace who will be looking for revenge. Many of those people will get jobs in other banks or with potential UBS customers. Nor should we forget the employees who remain; what must they be thinking about their employer? Will we be next? Will we be treated in the same way? Are we going to be expected to carry the extra workload?
It didn’t need to be like that. Making people redundant is usually a commercial imperative. Few managers enter into the process gleefully. It is a tough thing to have to tell someone that they have lost their job. This may explain why some managers fall back on impersonal letters, emails or text messages. But there are better and more sensitive ways to make someone redundant.
• Start by communicating commercial realities early on and treat your employees as business partners rather than disposable assets
• Communicate as early as possible that there could be risks, this can often bring out the best in people and rescue the business
• When the decision is taken put in place a clear, effective and rapid communications programme. Organise staff meetings, use video/teleconferencing if you are dealing with multiple sites, work to a scripted text to ensure consistency of message and involve senior executives
• Repeat yourself. With the initial shock people often hear the first part of the message only, retreating into their inner thoughts and therefore missing vital parts of the message
• Having communicated verbally and, where possible face to face, then send out an email with all of the basic points along with a carefully thought through Questions & Answers (Q&A) briefing note
• Don’t make a sham of the consultation period. Genuinely consult because there may be some clever and innovative ideas that emerge to save some jobs (or the business)
• During the consultation period continue to communicate. Even if those communications are simply updates such as ‘we have had another meeting with the union’ or ‘so far we have held discussions with one third of those affected’
• Don’t limit your communications to those at risk – communicate with everyone
• When you know who is leaving and who is staying then communicate in person to those leaving and follow it up with a written confirmation.
There is much more, but by now it should be clear that communication is vital when making people redundant. Currently we are working with several companies involved in making people redundant. They have treated their people with respect and dignity and they have communicated continuously throughout the process.
You cannot remove the fear and worry that such major change induces but you can leave people with a modicum of pride and send people into the jobs market with the reputation of your own company intact.
Have you ever been in a meeting, sales presentation or conference and found your mind wandering off onto other things? Wandering minds is a common trait in all of us, but it can have disastrous consequences for any meeting.
The reasons can be many. The mobile phone rings just as you are explaining the finer details of your new product. Everyone in the room focuses on the person taking the call; they are all curious to know what it is about. Then again it might be that someone comes in to the room, perhaps to prepare coffee for the break, or to whisper a message in to the ear of one of the attendees.
Whatever the reason, wandering minds are a serious cause of communication breakdown. They can’t be helped, they can’t be avoided, but they can be handled.
Preparation, as always, is key to the solution. If you are about to attend an interview, give a sales presentation or deliver a project proposal to senior managers then prepare well in advance.
Find out where the meeting will take place. If it is in the person’s office then be aware that they will be concentrating on the papers around them and not you. So whenever possible hold the meeting on neutral ground. If there are windows then close the blinds to prevent outside distraction.
If at all possible try and find out who will be attending. Find out as much about them as you can. The more senior the person the more likely that they will have half a mind on other things as you are delivering your message. Get to know their likes and dislikes, try and find something that you have in common and watch out for the time of day.
The time of day you are speaking can be critical. If you have a choice then make your presentation mid morning or mid afternoon. First thing in the morning they are keen to answer all those emails that came in overnight. Late morning they are thinking about lunch, after lunch they are sleepy and late afternoon they are panicking about all the jobs they haven’t done. Perhaps an oversimplification, but timing is everything to gain attention.
If you are expecting to speak for fifteen minutes, then aim for ten to twelve minutes. Don’t cram too much into the presentation. People only take in about 40% of what they are told. So it is better to concentrate on three key points, say them clearly and often and then repeat them (by saying them in slightly different ways).
Make sure that you get your key points made within the first three minutes, the optimum time for holding attention. This is most easily done by using the old technique of telling them what you are about to say, then saying it and at the end telling them what you have said.
Remember KISS – Keep It Short and Simple. Short, simple and to the point presentations are easier to follow and much easier to remember.
If your listeners are interrupted then take them back to the key points you had been making before the interruption. Help them to re-engage by giving them a summary of what you had said before the interruption.
If they look worried or absorbed after the interruption, then pause. Give them time to think about the problem and wait until they re-focus on you. Then repeat again what you were saying.
In extremis abandon the meeting and try to rearrange. You are a busy person too. If they clearly show little interest in you and your product then withdraw politely and find a better time or place when they are less distracted.
In these times of economic stress it seems like almost every company, and a lot of public sector organisations, are making people redundant.
The process is pretty horrid for all concerned. Of course we all give our thoughts to the employee who has been made redundant, but it is no easy thing for most managers or HR professionals to have to do, and it is hard for those who are left behind.
That is why having to serve notice is all the more difficult. The statutory notice period is one week for each complete year the employee has been continuously employed with them, up to a maximum of twelve weeks.
Now that really can be a lingering death.
Even the most conscientious employee will find it difficult to concentrate on the job. If the process leading up to the redundancy has been contentious or acrimonious then some employees could be apathetic, obstructive or even destructive in their remaining weeks. The workplace could be filled with poor productivity, petty arguments, poor timekeeping and absences.
Ultimately the organisation will suffer through low productivity and falling morale.
For those who remain there will be feelings of guilt and, even worse, pity for the person who is leaving. Unfortunately it can also be a time where the sharp witted and even sharper tongued can revel in hurtful jokes. For some it may be a time to whisper in corners or ‘get even’ for slights that have festered way beyond their time.
The effect can be corrosive on those who remain and can break down team bonds as views differ on the person about to leave.
For the person about to leave, the situation is arguably the worst. They are forced to sit there listening to the gossip, fending off the ‘kind’ words and counting the days to the end of life as they have known it. Each day becomes a chore. Each hug another reminder of their situation. One person described it as the worst form of rejection; a sense of worthlessness and a lead weight on their self confidence.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
The company or organisation could choose to give the employee gardening leave; that means they have the time to find a new job whilst still technically employed. The survivors of the redundancy period can settle down into a new ‘normal’ without having to worry about the feelings of those leaving. The company can rebuild productivity as well as morale by moving forward with those who remain.
Communication is a funny old thing. It can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Observation is a key element of good communications and this came across very strongly the other day when someone said that managers didn’t seem able to ‘read the room’ these days.
Of course what he meant was that few managers have been taught how to look out for telltale signs of things that might be going wrong within their team.
Bearing in mind the current economic climate and uncertainty surrounding so many businesses it might be worth looking at some key ‘hidden communications’ signs.
Appearance can often be a giveaway. Is someone dressing in a different way. Perhaps they have suddenly lost interest in themselves and they start coming to work looking dishevelled. If so it is worth checking out. It could be that the person concerned is depressed, are losing their self respect or may be hiding a medical condition. Whatever the reason it may be that giving them the opportunity to talk might help the manager to understand what can be done to help.
Of course, it could be that they have started turning up to work looking the bees knees. In which case check out to see if they are leaving the office to make telephone calls and having prolonged lunch hours. If so you can be pretty sure that they are probably looking for a new job.
There are other factors that can communicate a lot. Has a normally good timekeeper suddenly become a bad timekeeper? In one recent case it was all because the mother of the employee had been diagnosed with a serious illness. The employee was trying to look after the sick mother and do their work at the same time. The manager concerned was able to arrange for additional time off whilst the mother received treatment.
Watching for the tension in a team can also nip problems in the bud before they get serious. A person refusing to help with the work of another, turning their back on others, talking over other people, rubbishing their contributions. All of these could be seen as signs of a tense situation which needs to be managed.
What about the quality of the work? Telltale signs can be more mistakes made than normal or blame being placed on others because of shoddy work. Or it could be deadlines missed where before they were always met, or an inability to complete work. Where the quality of work deviates from the norm for that employee then the manager should be alert.
How about if they are slow in decision making? It could be that they are unsure about the level of their authority. The manager may have delegated a responsibility to them without making it clear the level of empowerment they have on the project.
In each case it requires effective communication from the manager to ensure that the problem is resolved. But only if the manager knows what to look for in the first instance.
Building a record so that you have the facts in front of you is important. Not being judgemental is equally important. Instead approach the issue calmly, prepare for the meeting and then deal with it directly by sticking to the facts is always the best approach.
Recognising the hidden messages in people’s everyday habits and mannerisms can help managers to be better more attentive and proactive team leaders. That is what ‘reading the room’ Is all about.
Communications is a complex business. For some people it is not something they spend too much time worrying about. They plod through life communicating without any real concern about the impact of their communications.
Others, however, need to be more careful if they are to be taken seriously.
A well known polling agency undertakes a monthly opinion poll of business leaders. They ask important questions about perceptions, opinions and views. As with all polling the result of the survey is only as good as the accuracy of the questions being asked.
The most recent poll conducted this month was asking questions about the likely impact on stakeholders. The problem was that they didn’t define stakeholders, nor did they make it clear in the question which stakeholders they were asking about.
Stakeholders, if you have looked at our paper on ‘Identifying Stakeholders’, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes both internal and external.
A stakeholder can be a primary stakeholder without whom the company could not survive. A good example of an external stakeholder might be a customer. An internal stakeholder might well be your employees.
Or you might be more concerned with secondary stakeholders who can have huge influences on your business. The banks would rate government and its agencies such as the Financial Services Ombudsman to be very important secondary stakeholders at the present time.
When considering your stakeholders it is possible to group them into large groups, such as ‘Suppliers’. But suppliers can cover a multitude of different people who interact with your organisation in different ways. Suppliers could be contractors or consultants who work closely with part of the company; or they could be suppliers of the materials needed to conduct your business. In the latter case it could be as broad as electricity companies providing power through to stationary suppliers providing your photocopying paper.
In each case the relationship has subtle differences. So when the survey of business leaders asked whether they thought a particular action was good for stakeholders or not, it left a lot to be desired.
If they meant that the action was good for the directors, senior executives and shareholders of the company then the answer was an unambiguous yes. If the stakeholders concerned were the customers and suppliers then the answer was an unequivocal NO!
So which stakeholders did they mean? They didn’t say. Which means that the whole survey was open to dispute. As the saying goes, rubbish in, rubbish out.
There are two words that can strike instant terror into the hearts of many corporate employees when uttered by management – strategic review.
The words strategic review are also closely associated with that other dread word – change.
From an employee’s point of view all of these words mean disruption in their normal daily routine, the likelihood of having to explain why their job is worth keeping and worst of all the possibility of redundancy.
A good manager will try to understand what their team is feeling.
They know that it will involve more meetings where difficult questions are asked. There is a strong possibility that strangers (management consultants) will be brought in to ‘poke’ into the way in which the team works. The review could well mean a change of work practice, a new job description and a moving around of the office.
They all know that some people will be leaving and they will start worrying that they may be one of them. That in turn leads to an overactive rumour mill, a reduction in productivity, a fall in morale and, in some cases, a refusal to cooperate.
Regrettably many managers make matters worse by failing to understand their teams. The single most common problem is a failure to communicate what is happening and why. Employees left in the dark will always think the worst and too much of their time will be taken up with ill informed speculation at a time when managers need them to be at their most productive.
That is why a change communications plan is so important. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Indeed it can’t be perfect because in any strategic review there will be all sorts of new challenges emerging; that, after all, is the purpose of a strategic review.
The most important element of a change communications plan is to keep it as personal as possible. Too many managers rely on newsletters and intranet communications to get across their message. Yes, they are important tools and should be part of the campaign, but they should never replace the face to face contact.
The very best change communications I have experienced happened in a diverse company where the headquarters staff used video conferencing to talk to managers across multiple sites and then those managers spoke to their staff in small teams where any question could be asked. The face to face communication was vital.
The meetings weren’t pre-planned or at set times. They happened when there was a need to communicate something new and important. In between there were other meetings that allowed the employees to express and discuss their concerns.
The approach taken was in stark contrast to the bunker mentality that some managers display as they get deeper into change. The inevitable still happened. Teams were broken up, people were moved and some lost their jobs, but throughout the process they knew what was happening and why.
Or the meanderings of an overworked manager in the pub after work
I was reminded the other day of the bad old days – or were they the good old days.
When I first started work back then, the workplace had wonderful things called secretaries – mine was called Eileen. You could give her several scrappy pieces of paper or ‘dictate’ a letter and lo and behold a short time later back would come a neatly typed letter or memo ready for posting.
When it came to writing a report the opportunities for lots of drafting and redrafting were limited. So I would think about what I intended to put in to the report, put together a checklist and an outline, get clearance (‘buy-in’ in today’s language) and then write the report. Every item was carefully thought through and its relevance to the report assessed. Because it was going to be typed on a typewriter (by Eileen who could get into a right old strop if she had to retype it too many times!) I was sparing with the language I used.
Not so today. No longer do I have the benefit of someone who could understand what I wanted and put it into coherent words. There was, of course, a time when I had a secretary called Sharon as well as my own computer. That was a tricky time because when I asked her to type something she would ask me why I couldn’t do it myself!
But today I do have the benefit of being able to draft and redraft, sending multiple drafts to everyone involved, getting feedback, making amendments, adding words, taking words out, adding tables, graphics, statistics and pictures galore.
I even get the opportunity to reconcile the demands of my work colleagues when one makes one suggestion and another makes a completely different suggestion. Then I can spend lots of time in diplomatic discussions about what to put in and what to leave out.
In short, reports are longer, take longer to complete, take up a lot more time of a lot more people, contain huge amounts of irrelevant material (because it was there and it made the report look bigger and therefore more important and authoritative) and often remain unread.
Now, I can’t guarantee that every one of my pre-computer age reports were read, but I know a large number were because I used to get a lot of feedback. Today, just as often as not, they are sent off and disappear into a black hole.
I am just as guilty. With my very smart computer I can open the email, download the report, glance over it and save it in a file ready to read later when I have more time.
The trouble is that I am so busy reading the drafts of reports of other people and finding impressive graphics and statistics to pack into my reports, as well as having to type them myself, that I have no time to read the reports I am sent. And even when I do get around to reading those reports, more often than not I can’t the folder in which they were so carefully saved.
So I don’t bother, and nobody ever seems to come back to me to ask why I haven’t commented on their report. It seems that sending the report was enough in itself.
The moral of this story is that we may have more tools with which to communicate, but are we communicating any better, or are we just generating more work for little return.
On 20th April 2011 (a Wednesday) BP will be facing the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. Last week’s blog looked at the areas upon which the media might decide to focus during this first anniversary.
This blog reviews what BP might be doing to minimise the first anniversary impact.
Things to consider
• The BP response will depend greatly upon what they have been doing over the past year
• It will also depend upon the relationship between the corporate communications people and their involvement in strategy development. If they are a ‘send and defend’ team with little influence over strategy then that may limit the approach taken.
Once these are known then the next stage is to consider:
• Should BP be proactive or reactive? Proactive means engaging with stakeholders, reassuring, informing and listening. Reactive means waiting to see if they have escaped an anniversary onslaught and then reacting to any coverage that does occur
• If proactive then what should they be talking about and to whom?
• Even if reactive they should be preparing scenarios for likely attack points and preparing relevant statements or references to third parties
• In this process they might be considering all their stakeholders and their likely reaction to the anniversary.
During the crisis last year I criticised BP for being too corporate. They appeared to be fixated with processes and procedures rather than the human element of the crisis. Their use of Tony Hayward the then CEO as their spokesperson was an object lesson on how not to use a CEO in a crisis.
The proactive approach:
I would always favour a proactive approach to the ‘tin helmet’ hunker down approach. On that basis what might they be doing?
• Remember that crises are about people
• Don’t forget that the first anniversary of a crisis can be stressful to all involved
• BP might want to express regret and sympathy for the lives lost (and mean it). For the families of the eleven men who died they should be listening to what these families want. Some will want no contact, others may want to visit the site of the disaster, yet others may want to talk and remember
• Employees will be stressed and the first anniversary is unlikely to be a normal working day. Those most closely involved in the crisis may need time and space to handle what happened. Others may just want time to talk or to take a little time out to remember. Most important though is that internal communications processes are used to send clear messages of support and understanding from the senior team
• The communities involved in the Gulf of Mexico will be very raw. Depending upon how proactive BP have been since the disaster will determine their level of involvement in those communities at the time of the anniversary. It could be that BP use the opportunity to express regret at what happened and then reaffirm their commitment to those communities. If BP has built a closer relationship with the Gulf communities then it might be a chance to reach out and demonstrate a change in culture between large oil company and the communities in which it operates
• If BP feels really confident that they can demonstrate real change then now would be the time to show what has happened since the disaster. The danger lies in the change being shallow. This is only an option if journalists can see and feel cultural and attitudinal change.
Ultimately it will be BPs actions in the lead up to and during the crisis that will do them most harm or good. If they come across as arrogant and complacent then self harm will happen.
If they show openness, honesty, a willingness to admit human frailty and an admission that more has to be done then they might just be treated more kindly.
It is interesting to note that the BP share price before the crisis was 655.4 pence. Today it stands at 467 pence. In three weeks time it will be interesting to review how BP handled the mini crisis heading their way. Will their senior executives be watching the share price or be more concerned about the human cost of the crisis – that is the real test.
Looking at a communication plan recently, from the very beginning it was clear that it was overambitious. It was obvious what the writer was trying to achieve and the aims were honest, it was just that they were unattainable.
Many communication plans fail for that one simple reason. On paper they look good; in reality they are impossible to achieve. Here are some of the reasons why communication plans fail when they are put into action.
Poor strategy. It is worth pointing out the difference between strategy and tactics. A strategy describes where you want to go and in broad terms how you want to get there. A strategy paper is usually no more than two or three pages long.
A tactic is the means and methods by which you will achieve your strategy. Most people confuse the two, writing very long ‘strategy’ papers which are, in reality, tactical papers which are poor in strategic thinking. Clarity of thought in knowing what it is that you want to achieve is most important for a successful communications plan.
Poor tactics. All too often the tactical element contains everything including the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’. Simplicity is key at this point. Another mistake made by many is the headlong rush to ‘do’ social media because ‘that’s the modern way’.
In one recent conversation it became clear that the traditional method of advertising in a local newspaper was achieving far more than all of the money being spent on online resources. The local newspaper is where the audience found that particular product.
Too much, too quickly. Trying to do too much, too quickly is another problem with a lot of communication plans. A well planned, phased and protracted campaign will achieve a lot more success than a big impact, all at once, approach.
Getting buy-in. Not buy-in from senior executives; for a communication plan to be put into action that is a given. The real problem is that not enough communication plans are presented and discussed with the very people who could, all to easily, scupper them – the employees. Spending time involving team members and employees in what is being planned can produce good ideas and a sense of ownership. When the communication plan is agreed spending more time telling employees about the plan will get further support and prevent them from accidentally undermining the initiative.
Over ambition. Finally, over-ambitious plans lead to poor execution, disillusion and failure. It is a common human trait to think that things are easier to deliver than is the case. Goals are often over-ambitious and the ability for individuals to deliver on core areas can easily be thrown out by unexpected events.
In short, little steps rather than big steps are the best approach. Realistic goals are essential. Getting buy-in is a must. And tempering ambition with a touch of reality will lead to an achievable and successful communication plan.
The Communications & Public Affairs Search & Selection specialists Ellwood & Atfield have published a report entitled ‘Communications: A view from the Board’.
Broadly speaking the report holds no great surprises. CEOs expect their communications directors to be good sounding boards and a sanity check but don’t want them too closely involved in strategic planning.
Inevitably the two go hand in hand. If you want a good strategy then it helps to know what the communicator thinks about the viability of the message. But it appears that many CEOs don’t want their comms people to get that close.
Instead they prefer them to be good at functional skills, whilst practical communications skills are taken as read. More and more the CEO expects their comms chief to have good business and financial literacy. Sounds like they could do the CEOs job as well!
Unsurprisingly the report suggests that CEOs are unsure how to take the new communications challenges presented by social media. The report talks about CEOs wanting more proactive media monitoring but doesn’t mention that they should also be addressing how to be proactive in engaging with these social media stakeholders.
Whilst many CEOs see media relations as becoming less important, they do recognise the value of building relationships with other stakeholders such as investors, employees and government. No surprise with the latter group (government) regulating more and more industry sectors and tinkering in areas about which they know absolutely nothing.
Overall the CEOs and Chairmen do seem to recognise the importance of the communication function. That is why about two thirds of those interviewed estimate that they spend at least 30% of their time communicating. They don’t say if they keep their comms director in the loop when they are busy communicating.
And, oh yes, they think internal communications is important, especially during periods of change. Now that really is interesting because I have yet to come across a change process where the employees felt that they had the first clue about what was going on!