Thursday, 22 March 2012

Dirty work, clean energy

FACT: Sometimes in HR you have to do the dirty work.

Yes, I am being simplistic, or even facetious. What I really mean is handling difficult situations that involve change, disruption or even letting people go. Often, they haven’t been created by you, but that are down to you to manage anyway. That's how HR works- and I am glad of it. Sorting out things we had no part in means we can be independent and impartial.

The first time you have to manage how you let people go, there’s a fair bit of resentment- “Why me?” This soon passes when as you remember that you know, it’s kind of your job, and down to you because you will make sure it's fair. Then comes the annoyance: the inner voice protests- “It should never have got this far!”. When you realise that well it has, so there, and you'd better just focus and crack on, you move on to avoidance- “There’s got to be a better way!” Sadly, by the time you’ve used the word ‘redundancies’, every other way has been generally exhausted. It takes a while to accept that bit.

At this point, the best you can do is to do your best.

It’s key to actively manage change in all organisations if you’re to keep staff on side and maintain HR’s position of trust.

Once you’ve defined a need for cost savings that include redundancies, it’s essential that you stay visible, accessible and on top of matters to retain the belief in your abilities that you need from others. 

Stay credible by being visible.
Think, Feel, Know- and why Feel is essential

When it comes to handling a dilemma or making decisions, some do it based on logic, processing the data they’ve been given and drawing a onclusion after a time. Others make a call based on how they feel about things.

Usually, it’s a process; we work through thinking about the data we’ve got, processing the facts, before we consider how we feel about it. Only then can we truly move in to knowing what we need to do, or what we need to happen.

But people are people, and they react in ways we can’t prescribe or predict. Everybody has a preferred style. Some cut straight to the chase and make a decision very quickly from a knowing state – this is often informed by ‘gut feeling’ or experience. Others spend so long working through how they feel about something that you almost have to drag a decision from them with forceps.

It’s hard sometimes for somebody who actively likes people to cut the emotional connection they feel and be a cold, hard thinker. I am struggling with this right now, and am unafraid to admit it. I think it's how I prioritise the people in this situation rather than the cold, hard facts that serves me well and means that every redundancy I have ever handled has ended in a handshake and a smile. I even once got swept up in a bear hug by the employee and thanked for doing a good job.

Often, when considering redundancies, HR people park their emotions and switch into thinking. It’s easy for some, but when you know the people involved, it’s a bad move.

I’m not saying that expressing sympathy or care is a magic bullet; when it comes to shedding jobs, you can’t make it perfect, but you can make it as collaborative and fair as you can.

Try as you might you cannot take away the impact of redundancy, but you can limit it and reassure those affected that it’s been done in the fairest and most honest manner. Obviously, there will be an emotional response- I’ve seen tears, anger, and crushing disappointment... but this passes as you allow them to express it and show them you’re not running scared. You’re not about to leave the room (unless they get physically violent, which thankfully is rarer than hen’s teeth.) You are focussed on them, not the next meeting or your phone; you really are with them, and will be as long as it takes to get them through the initial shock and upset. Trust me, this counts for a lot.

It’s not just a process – it’s lives

While there’s a procedure for managing redundancies, effectively helping someone through such a serious life changing event depends on your approach. It’s no use being wishy-washy and making vague promises you can’t keep about alternatives or redeployment just to keep the heat off you. It’s also useless to leave empathy at the door. Nobody likes a cold fish.

Having been through both a well-run and pretty poorly managed redundancy process myself, I worked out how I’d have liked to have been treated and defined how they sit within the technical process.

So here are the rules I try to stick to when handling one of the more unpleasant parts of an HR practitioner’s duties.

Care – Don’t assume that everyone will say or feel the same way. Just be human about things; allow them the chance to express themselves.

Don’t talk around the subject - People can generally handle getting bad news. They cope. They like the idea that they’re respected enough to be trusted to handle it ok. What they don’t like is you being vague and feeling they are being kept in the dark. Show them why you need to make the change. Be honest. Demonstrate that there’s really no other option, and so that’s why you have to meet to discuss it.

Remember you’re dealing with grownups – Don’t babysit. Use proper words, not jargon or dumbed-down language. They are adults, and they won’t thank you for patronising them when all they want is a little dignity in dark times. 

Talk talk - Encourage them to ask questions. Get them to seek out information rather than letting them make assumptions. Let them voice what they need to- but be careful not to grant permission for them blame you for the bigger problems that led you here.

Lift the lid, release the pressure – they have to release what they are feeling, and better that they do it in a quiet room with you than back in the crowded workplace or even online. They’ll work through this negative state and with the right support they will soon come to realise that they have a responsibility to move on from it and take positive action.

It’s ok to feel anxious – Anxiety over a situation motivates and helps us focus on an answer to the problem. By looking at the risk, we naturally find a way to manage it. It’s self-preservation, and it can be a marvellous thing. 

To thine own self be true - Being genuine doesn’t take any more time or effort than being disingenuous or hard-faced. In amongst your efforts to keep the impact on them in mind, bringing a little empathy helps them remember that you’re human too. They may know you well. They will wonder why they are faced with someone they’ve grown to trust and like is being so cold towards them. They may misread this and allow it to create paranoia or a sense of victimisation or unfairness. In their hearts, they know that nobody likes these conversations, but by being yourself, keeping things fair, listening to them and being supportive, you can help retain the humanity that makes such a huge difference in these situations. 

Let them see the light- recognising that they’ve done great work before helps them remember that there’s reason to feel great about themselves, and positive about the future. Don’t be afraid to thank them for doing a great job to date- it helps them realise that they have skills and abilities that are attractive to other employers, and that perhaps change could be an opportunity for them after all. 

Keep your promises – first up, don’t make any you don’t know for certain you’ll be able to keep. But if you tell them you’ll get a letter summarising a meeting in the post to them, tell them when it’ll be sent- and do it. 

Keep talking - Don’t allow things to stagnate through inaction. Don’t let days and days pass with no contact. Check in regularly and make sure they are doing ok. Be available. Be accessible. Don’t be ‘too busy’- it may not be all you have to think about, but it’s sure as heck all they can think about. Make sure they understand what’s happening and what’s next. Offer as much support as is practicable. Don’t overcommit yourself, particularly if you are the sole HR professional in a team and you are consulting with 20 people on this. Seek outside help for them too- outplacement support is a specific skill and not all HR practitioners are au fait with the best way to help those affected. A small investment in a day’s support for your people can make all the difference to their employment prospects in future- and how they speak about your company after they leave.

I make no promises that sticking to the above makes you resistant to the emotional effects running a redundancy process can have, or that it’ll guard against all eventualities, but it keeps everyone's energy as 'clean' as it can be, and usually delivers the best result - so I reckon it’s a pretty decent set of rules to keep in mind.

As toolkits for dirty jobs go, it’s a pretty effective one to have at your disposal.

No comments:

Post a Comment