Redundancy is never easy

Article by Bill Larke

When I started writing this blog I was sat on a delayed train waiting to carry out what is probably the toughest job in HR. At the other end of my journey is a person who has no Idea who I am or why I’m coming to see her.

It’s late October and as I travel in to the city the person I’m going to see has a job, a stable income and has probably already started planning for Christmas. She may have a family, I don’t know, but I do know who she works for and the instructions they have given me. When I’m finished with her later today her life will be turned upside down, temporarily I hope.

Of course she’s not the first person I’ve had to make redundant or dismiss for one reason or another in 30 years of HR, but each time I take it just as seriously as the first. These conversations are hard to have though.

Someone compared HR people to psychopaths and it isn’t that silly a comparison. Some years ago I led an exercise that resulted in the closure of a Cadbury factory near Bristol, 500 direct jobs and a further 1200 indirect were lost. If we allowed the individual lives, challenges, mortgages, school runs etc. to permeate our minds we’d go mad….and so we don’t allow it to enter into our minds, we get on with the job.

The reality is that things change, businesses change, jobs change, technology changes and positions that were needed yesterday are not necessarily needed today. Businesses survive by adapting and if they didn’t adapt they would become unfit for purpose, unprofitable and everyone would have to go. Sometimes there will be casualties, it is inevitable.

And that leads us to the first rule when planning a redundancy – it isn’t personal, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that there is a person involved. My client who sent me in to the city to terminate the employment of one of his staff (actually the only one) is doing more than he has to, and that is an admirable thing.

The law prescribes minimum redundancy payments that have to be made, but that is a minimum, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t and shouldn’t do more. Despite being a small HR Company myHRdept will handle 30 or more individual redundancies a year for our clients and when preparing we will always advise them that voluntary agreements to terminate employment are better than harsh compulsory redundancies.

Under a voluntary agreement we give the employee some say in the process, they are empowered to make certain decisions which makes the process, once the shock has worn off, easier to bear. In exchange for additional compensation over and above legal entitlement the individual will agree to sign a legal agreement waiving employment rights…so it’s in our client’s interests to do more than they have to.

But I was inspired to write this blog not to describe the technicalities of redundancy management (I’ve written lots about that already) but to look at what an exercise like the one I’m about to undertake means, what it feels like, and how it can be best approached.

Aside from being able to offer enhanced terms for a voluntary agreement (I will try and achieve that later today) the next golden rule of managing a redundancy termination discussion is to ensure you are properly prepared.

The client in this case was not easy to manage, the brief and compensation levels changed several times on route, but I was not prepared to meet with his employee until we had settled on the reasons and the compensation in writing. This was finally achieved the day before the meeting, only then did I agree to buy the train ticket.

Given I’ve never before met the individual I’m about to see, the next challenge was to set up the meeting, and I worked with the client beforehand to construct a useful approach so that she wouldn’t be spooked by an HR person she’s never met travelling to her office to see her. Like it or not the first and most crucial meeting is always a bit of a hijack.

I don’t think honesty will work at all well here – “Dear Amy, I’d like to introduce you to Bill Larke who is coming into the office to explain why your role is at risk of redundancy…”could well push Amy onto the sick list or worse!

This begs the question of course, why isn’t her boss doing the meeting? There could be a number of reasons for that – but lack of experience and confidence is often the answer. And so it falls to me or one of my team.

Once the meeting commences things will happen quickly so it’s important to know every detail and make sure all the important points are covered. A good knowledge of redundancy law and consultation processes is important to.

To avoid tripping up on legal detail you need to know the difference between ‘at risk’ and ‘redundant’ and why the word ‘proposal’ is so important. If you are intending to propose a voluntary agreement as an alternative to continuing with the redundancy consultation process, it’s useful to have decent negotiating skills too.

Perhaps that’s another reason why so many of our clients prefer to outsource these things to us! The important thing to remember when structuring this conversation is that there is a beginning (‘at risk’ notice and why) a middle (discussion and alternatives) and an end (an agreed course of action, perhaps the voluntary deal is signed or a deadline for signing is agreed.)

People often fail to consider the very end. What happens when the meeting is over? Do we allow the person to continue working, or ask them to go home while the detail is being tied up? Do they have access to company systems at this time, or do we need to remove access temporarily? And if they do go home, do we know how to contact them?

As I draw closer to today’s meeting I know the answers to all of these questions, because it’s my job to know. The last tip I can offer is to consider the future for the ex-employee once they’ve left. At the very least we should be able to provide a positive reference focussing on their strengths. Everybody has strengths.

Some employers might be able to help further with introductions or outplacement, perhaps even some training costs as a part of the final deal. The reference of course for this morning’s person has already been written.

Businesses need to change, change often hurts, but good employers will try and make it as painless as possible. (NB the employee signed up to voluntary terms the day after our meeting.)

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