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Managing your team after redundancies

It’s inevitable that Hong Kong banks, law firms, accountancy and consulting firms will start announcing layoffs to trim their costs and stabilize their businesses. First the months of protests and now the spread of the coronavirus has hit employers hard. Food and beverage, retail, aviation and the hospitality sectors have been shedding jobs for months. The financial services and professional services sectors are not far behind.

As a manager, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of making your team redundant. Although these redundancy conversations are difficult, sometimes the discussions with employees who were not impacted by the redundancy can be even more challenging. These employees watched while some of their best friends and teammates walked out the door for the last time. Despite the best efforts of managers and HR to soften the blow, they will inevitably feel that the redundancy process was unfair and upsetting. Many of them will ask “Am I next?” This type of doubt can lead employees to make assumptions about their own situations or the fate of the company. This questioning and uncertainty can lead to an uncomfortable environment for everyone.

It’s extremely important to address this head-on and as quickly as possible. After the redundancy, teams will be operating with less people and those who remain are even more critical to the company’s success. Here are the top 7 ways to lead from the front during this challenging time.

1.) No time to waste

If it is logistically possible, speak to your team immediately. If they are based in different offices or countries, schedule a videoconference or conference call so everyone has access to you and hears the same message. After a challenging day, you may be tempted to put this off or assume that your team will have learned everything they need from the official company briefing. Don’t avoid this difficult conversation. Putting it off only makes it worse.

2.) Ask for help

If you aren’t sure what to say, ask your boss or your HR partner before you sit down with your team. They will have gone through this before and will have some advice for how to handle these types of discussions. You should debrief with them afterwards, particularly to highlight any employees who are especially upset and may benefit from some additional 1:1 support directly from them. This can be especially helpful for high-potential employees or those you may consider a flight-risk post the changes.

3.) Be honest

Your team will have many questions. You won’t be able to answer them all—either because you simply don’t know the answer or because you can’t due to confidentiality. Don’t sidestep. If you don’t know the answer or can’t be more specific, say so. Some employees may view this as stonewalling, but you should do the best you can with the limited information you have. If you try to sugarcoat or even lie, this will simply make things worse. Promise to follow-up and then do so. You won’t be able to answer 100% of employee’s questions, but your willingness to listen and to try to address their concerns will help you strengthen your credibility and increase their trust in you.

4.) Script it out

As I mentioned in a previous post, larger companies will typically prepare some talking points to help managers with their redundancy discussions. These talking points can also be used to craft a script for the meeting with your team. If you work at a smaller organization, you can draft a script yourself or ask your HR partner to help you. This helps you stay on track, protects you from the risk of saying the wrong thing, and ensures your comments are brief, professional and factual.

Your team may ask you very specific questions that you were not expecting. It is important not to accidentally reveal confidential information or give false assurances.

5.) Is It Over?

The most common question you will receive is “Is it over?” Employees want reassurance from you that their job is safe. This is one reason why I recommend that a company use a ‘rip off the band-aid’ approach to redundancies as opposed to the ‘drip-drip-drip’ technique of spreading them out over several days or weeks. When the redundancies are done, they are done and you can confirm this to employees right away. This helps to steady the ship and get employees focused back on their work. However, this is a tricky question to answer because you may not always know what is happening in other parts of the company. If you aren’t 100% sure that the exercise is complete, I recommend that you tread lightly with this question and say something like “There are no further changes to our team.” This provides some level of reassurance without committing you to a blanket statement that could come back to bite you in the future.

6.) Give them time

Each member of your team will have a different reaction to the restructuring. With less team members, there will be a reallocation of work too. Some will grumble and be unhappy for a few days but then will simply get on with things. Others may grieve for the loss of their colleagues and friends and will need longer to adjust. In my experience, in the immediate aftermath of a large-scale redundancy exercise, we would give employees the option to take the rest of the day off, work from home, or take a long lunch or coffee break to gather their thoughts. Most would knuckle down and get back to work after a brief period of reflection, but some will need additional time. As a manager, the important thing is for employees to know that they have these options.

7.) Lead by example

A large-scale redundancy exercise is emotionally draining. As a manager, you had to say goodbye to friends, peers, and subordinates you may have worked with for years. Now, you have a smaller team but the same amount of work to do. Despite these pressures, it is up to you to show your team how to carry on. Try to maintain a “business as usual” atmosphere. Hold regularly scheduled meetings and maintain deadlines (while being sensitive to those employees who need more time, as referenced above). Reallocate work as quickly as possible and make decisions about who will lead important projects and how to address questions from external parties about the changes to the team. Come in early, stay late and have an open-door policy for employees who may want to talk. Your team will look to you for guidance. Give it to them.

As a manager, there are many situations where you may not have all of the answers. In a large-scale redundancy exercise, it is important to act quickly, be honest, ask for help and most importantly, lead by example. These 7 steps will help you retain your key employees and help them move forward while focusing on their work.

Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIN!

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