No Fun for the Soon Forgotten



Lest you think you’ve missed something in the title–the plot of Irish playwright Eugene O’Neill’s final play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, has no relationship whatsoever to outsourcing or offshoring; the plot revolves around a washed up actor, and a scheme to buy land below market. The protagonists have much in common yet with a wide gulf separating them; O’Neill’s opus was a vessel to exorcise his own guilt relative to his mother.

Beyond being a set up for an overly clever play on words for the title of this article, O’Neill’s play deals with behaviors that are characterized by archetypes and racked with guilt. And here’s where the analogy to sourcing comes into play.

Few sourcing organizations train their managers to deal with the fine art of making teams redundant in preparation for a change in business architecture.  Unlike handing out pink slips on a Friday as part of a massive reduction in force, sourcing organizations do not have the luxury of looking over a bay of empty desks the next day. The affected staff return and are expected to do their jobs with grace and consistent performance until knowledge is fully transferred and the cutover is deemed successful. Then they are out of a job, scrambling to figure out a way to pay the rent and put food on the table.

In the sourcing work plan, the mechanics around letting people go is associated with the HR team. Whether it means complying with TUPE or the Age Discrimination Employment Act, or alerting workers councils, organizations are well-equipped to navigate ‘official’ HR policy and procedure.  But limited focus is placed on the implications of the act of redundancy as a result of the sourcing decision, helping managers to cope, and more importantly, treating soon-to-be departing staff with as much care, professionalism and dignity as they can muster.  The resultant approach is typically improvised, with deleterious implications for all—stress, loss of trust, inconsistent messaging, potential unequal treatment and ultimately damage to corporate reputation.

Many of us have been there. We’re told to let employees go through no fault of their own, and our initial reactions are “there but for the grace of God go I.” Then we anticipate D-Day, thinking about the message we have to impart, worrying about the jobs market these soon-to-be-surplus to requirement staff are entering, and getting the rules and regs from the HR department rep. The next reaction is to push to get it over with as fast as we can, trying to keep face until the sorry task is over. From there, we typically wing it, adapting one of three default approaches:

“It’s business as usual”  The fallacy is that it will never be business as we knew it again, but managers try to cope by sweeping the change under the proverbial rug.  Affected staff are expected to have a stiff upper lip in the face of redundancy, with clueless managers operating under the pretense that the act of sourcing has no implication until the day the security cards are given back, and that the team dynamic won’t change in the interim.

 “You are already off the org chart and I can ignore you” Since when has shunning been touted as an effective management technique? Post announcement, of all the default approaches, no longer looking someone in the eye, cutting them out of communications or isolating them from the team is the most destructive, yet constitutes the usual knee jerk reaction. None of us like to be reminded daily of the dislocation that results from sourcing in the faces of our soon to be forgotten colleagues. However, it is often easier for the manager to assuage his own guilt—or even culpability in designing the new business model—by moving on emotionally and communicating only with colleagues deemed “safe”—those who will not mope, complain, are visibly tortured or angry.

“ I really care about you and I did not want to do this”  Using this approach, managers cope with redundancy by making an apologia for the misguided corporate decision to source, constantly bringing up the reduction in force as a grave error on the part of the powers that be.  The dialog goes something like this: “it’s a bad decision,  the best people are leaving, it’s going to blow up in the organization’s face, and you are better off not being here when the processes come crashing down to the floor.”

Whether the manager is racked by guilt like O’Neill’s characters– or a corporate strain of sadism–this messaging is dishonest and deleterious to staff morale on all sides. Affected staff have trouble getting enough grip to allow them to move on to the next phases of their lives while retained staff pick up conflicting messages—this is an ill-conceived deal with nothing but a bad ending on one hand, and a “we’ve retained the best to go bravely into the next new corporate frontier” on the other.

Treating staff with the right consideration

Think first and foremost about the affected staff. Although all of us now realize companies don’t owe us a living, we push our teams to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid and put their jobs right up there in the top five most important things in life. Their senses of self are tied up in what they do and whom they work for, whether they are leading a division, or processing bills—it makes no difference   Many, particularly staff performing rules-based work, have worked in the organization for years in the only job they have ever known. Their work families are just as precious to them as their actual families, sometimes a lot closer.

And while they are experiencing the fallout of globalization first hand, these staff are entering job markets with a hollowed-out middle. Fewer and fewer moderately skilled, technology-enabled positions are available.  Mobility is restricted because of housing markets.  And in countries such as the U.S., there is a very limited social safety net.

Now the corporation comes along and says that a 24 year old in India or Costa Rica can do the job with higher productivity and at less cost, and that, in order to become more competitive, the job must be moved offshore. Naturally the fallout is intensely personal.

Torn between an acknowledgement of business realities, and empathy for affected staff, what should the sensible—and sensitive—manager do when navigating the challenging period from organization redesign though announcement, notification and termination?

During organization redesign Waiting until the night before the roster of the terminated is announced is too late; the time to discuss and finalize the principles driving the treatment and expectations of affected staff, and how to maintain productivity during cutover, is at the first stage of organization redesign.  This is not an exercise that should be closely held between departmental leaders and HR representatives; managers are the front line of communication to staff and should be engaged in the development of messaging and the design of response models. Only direct managers can identify the full range of staff situations and expected reactions.

Engaging managers is more than a design exercise. Often managers are told the night before the corporate or departmental announcement, with no time to internalize what the redundancies mean for their staff, and perform their own mental tryout. Allowing enough time to train these front line messengers to communicate effectively and professionally, staying on message with the right amount of empathy is critical.

From announcement to notification During this period, the organization is under the highest degree of stress. Staff will spend an inordinate amount of time guessing at the organizational implication, and game how the sourcing initiative will affect them as well as and compared to their team mates. Therefore, it is important to:

Communicate honestly and factually It is critical to acknowledge the implications right after announcement—the team composition is changing, which changes are known and which are still to be decided, stressing going back to business as usual is not an option. Putting out hope that the announcement is nothing but a bad dream, or the corporate decision du jour is not productive. Generally, the best way to structure the first discussion after the organization releases the news is to share it within individual work streams or teams, which creates a support structure and keeps everyone reading on the same page.

Personalize the notification  As fashionable as dismissing employees on Twitter or outsourcing the termination process is expected to become, affected staff should be informed in person or verbally as soon as possible after the organization chart is populated. Leaks are a fact of life; hearing about the proverbial list in the cafeteria is counterproductive.

Good managers foresee reactions on an individual basis, taking the corporate message and personalizing it to the extent possible. Low tenured staff will have very different concerns from those who are a few years shy of retirement; the responses to the news will be very different depending on circumstances. Obviously, human resources professionals should be present at notification with all benefits and expectations clearly spelled out in writing with FAQs anticipated.

Don’t hold out false hope In some cases, the new organization design and its attendant retained staff numbers are not fully fleshed out. Many organizations gamble on the number of voluntary departures during transition, and endeavor to keep staff guessing to cover their bets. Unfortunately this tactic gives false hope, and delays the employee’s transition to a new state of mind. Experience suggests that it is better for all concerned not to hold out hope that conditions will change, but deal with reinstatement if and when it occurs.

Plan for a grieving period Job loss is major loss, no matter how one looks at it. However, in sourcing change, the staff still come to work for a period of time, creating community grief with implications for the success of the sourcing process. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are applicable here; evidence suggests that it can take six weeks to go through the initial stages of the cycle, with a healthy embracing of new opportunities taking much longer.  For some period of time after announcement and notification, morale will dip, performance will decline, and the level of noise as manifested in chit-chat, phone calls in empty conference rooms, and abrupt conversations will be marked. It is critical to allow approximately one week for the initial shock to wear off, then remind people that there’s work to do.

Post notification through knowledge transfer

We have a bipolar reaction to affected staff; we want them to be professional and fully support the transition to the new model, yet wish that we did not have to deal with the associated angst. Making concern and care for these staff visible during this period can be accomplished by:

Being generously inclusive with all staff

Ensure that all employees, whether marked for redundancy or retained, are included in all team or departmental meetings which are critical to process operations or where general corporate information is shared. The mantra here is to share as much as possible, keeping the team together working under the same operative structure until cutover; after all, on a daily basis the bills still need to be paid and the calls answered.

Spelling out expectations for the retained team relative to behavior.

For example, managers should make it clear what can or cannot be shared with staff marked for redundancy, and confine its circulation as much as possible.  While it is important to operate in an environment of transparency, some information about the future state, or the business case, or new target performance levels will fuel anxiety.  It is also important to sensitize retained staff to the travails of those who will leave, and emphasize the importance of empathy and support.

Spelling out expectations for affected staff during the interim

Leaving affected staff alone to figure out what to do is a recipe for trouble. Understandable concern about self will cloud judgment.  For example, it is critical to clarify what should be shared with external and internal customers; telling a caller that he’ll have to deal with India next time may not bode well for customer relations. Letting staff know what level of performance is expected during the transition in precise terms is key, whether or not they have a bonus riding on it.

Refusing to entertain conversations about “why me versus him”

Human tendency is to continually revisit the root causes of redundancy over and over again, regardless of the trigger.  Any and all conversation on topic as to why one specific employee is being retained versus another should be immediately cut short. In response, discussion should revolve around the business imperative, the requirement for continued performance, and any personal concerns that are within the purview of the organization.

Acknowledging the challenges of transferring job knowledge

It’s hard to be made redundant; it is even harder to cheerfully share both rules-based and tacit knowledge as a precursor to termination. Staff need to be trained to share knowledge under normal circumstances; it is more difficult to do so when personal feelings are in the way. Make the process as simple as possible by breaking down the transfer into component parts, ensure that questions are posed to the employee several times to maintain quality and consistency, and help the employee understand exactly what is expected of him.  Recognition of a job well done in difficult circumstances will assist in obtaining expected results.

Implementing a support group

Staff need a wide range of assistance, ranging from motivation to job search, even to resume preparation and dressing to make a right first impression. Bring in experts, such as government job counselors and resume writers to bag lunches, or spend personal time prepping staff for interviews.

Continuing to celebrate

Live the concept of business as usual. If the team always celebrates birthdays, or exceeds quota, continue to do so. If an affected staff member lands a good job, send him or her off in style. This is not the time to eliminate the ceremonies that are part and parcel of work life.

From completion of knowledge transfer to termination

Upon reaching this stage, the majority of the affected staff have become resigned to the termination of their employment; many are looking forward to new situations and cannot wait for the official pink slip. Others dread the day and need help with closure.  Prepared managers:

Frame cutover as an important event

Even though it means the end of employment for some, mark the last day as an occasion. There is nothing more difficult for a loyal employee to leave quietly and unrecognized with a box of pictures.

Provide documentation

Equip departing employees with whatever recommendations they require, stressing that termination is due solely to business events and not to job performance.

Keep doors open

Despite best efforts to transfer any and all knowledge, in the first few weeks post cutover, it may be necessary to ask a question of a terminated employee.  Let the employee know that this may be necessary, and thank him or her for their help in advance. Conversely, deliver a sincere offer of support in the move to a new position.

Losing a job due to a sourcing decision is no fun for any employee; being marginalized, patronized, or having to pretend that nothing has changed for several months in the face of a loss of employment just adds insult to injury and constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment. Staff will not look back on the good aspects of their employ, but rather shade their feelings about the company in terms of the dignity with which they were treated on their way out.

Implementing a transition program which shows respect for affected staff is not just demonstrating humanity; it is also good business.  Suffice it to say productivity during transition, retention of those slated to be retained, effective knowledge transfer and corporate brand are all at stake. Care for the soon forgotten is a sourcing change imperative.

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