Those uncomfortable discussions that come with change

Questions every employer should be ready to answer
By Marge Watters
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/28/2004

In the aftermath of a downsizing or restructuring, organizations depend on employees to adjust as quickly as possible and make the changes work.

People must to get used to a new structure, new processes and a changed culture despite feelings of loss about departed co-workers and fears about their own futures. They may also be angry toward those in control of the decisions and confused about new roles. Leaders who manage transitions well minimize the potential damage to effectiveness and productivity by paying attention to employee needs.

What matters to employees during times of significant change? How can managers and human resources professionals help people move through a transition in the most positive way? The answer lies in hearing and responding to their concerns. Here are the key questions that come up following a restructuring or downsizing:

Why was this necessary?

People need a clear and credible explanation for the change. They need to understand the context of the decisions, the potential consequences of not acting, the alternatives that were considered and why those options were rejected.

They also need to know the anticipated benefits of the new situation. These explanations will be more readily accepted when they show that the change protects something the employees value. Don’t expect employees to be interested in return on investment or shareholder value. Talk about what’s in it for the employees and be honest about how they will be affected negatively.

How were people selected for reassignment or severance?

Transparency in the selection process is crucial to acceptance. First, explain how operational needs will be staffed in the new structure. Next, be honest with the tough messages. If having a specific skill set was a determining factor, explain this in full.

Don’t be afraid to say that past performance was considered in the selection process. Where there is no established performance management process, create a fair methodology, explain it and apply it consistently. When remaining employees understand the rationale and see that policies are equitable, they will be able to move forward more quickly.

Couldn’t the organization have treated the departing employees better?

When a downsizing is carefully planned and announced with compassion, it goes a long way to helping everyone involved. Fair severance packages and the provision of career transition support not only help the exiting employees, they make remaining employees feel less guilty for surviving the cut.

Remaining employees sympathize with their departing colleagues partly because they worry about their own future. When exiting employees are treated with respect, dignity and generosity, anxiety is reduced.

How does this affect me?

People want to know who will do the work of those who left. They want to understand their new role and how it fits into the chain of command. It is crucial to clarify the structure and define responsibilities and priorities as quickly as possible.

Make sure the lines of communication are open, inviting feedback and suggestions from the people doing the work. Control the demands made on employees and implement time-saving initiatives. Provide training and supervision for those who have new tasks and responsibilities.

When will the next restructuring or downsizing happen?

Until the changes produce the desired results, employees will wonder whether the action was sufficient and dread the next wave of downsizing or another restructuring.

Most people rely on their employer for career development and future opportunities because they have not yet embraced the concept of managing their own careers. To help employees move forward, provide assistance with identifying transferable skills and rethinking goals and options within the new structure.

Offer opportunities to develop skills that are valued in the external marketplace. When people have confidence in their own futures they contribute far more to any job.

How’s it going?

Provide frequent updates regarding the progress of the change initiative. People will be more committed to persevering when they can see that their efforts are producing results. Celebrate successes and solve problems with optimism. Offer public recognition to those who exemplify positive attitudes and helpful behaviour.

The way to regain employee confidence after a downsizing or restructuring is to communicate openly and honestly. Give staff opportunities to provide input and honour their suggestions by implementing them or explaining why not. Respect their ability to understand what’s going on and assume that they want to help make the new structure work.

Marge Watters is the author of It’s Your Move, and a founder of Knebel Watters & Associates, Toronto, and career management services firm KWA Partners. She can be reached at mwatters@kwapartners.com.


Restructuring checklist: Rebuilding employee confidence

•If possible, involve employees in the early analysis and planning of a restructuring. A sense of ownership in the change generates confidence.

•Before announcing the change, bring pivotal people on board and provide support and training for them. The positive influence of these people will be crucial.

•Plan the announcement carefully. Create and implement a communication plan designed to reach all stakeholders with key messages.

•Treat departing employees fairly and as generously as possible. Include career transition support.

•Provide opportunities for remaining employees to discuss and process their feelings after a downsizing. Use an outside facilitator to ensure confidentiality.

•Facilitate opportunities for employees to say good-bye to exiting colleagues and let go of old structures and routines.

•Once the initial shock has worn off, continue to communicate. Provide a clear and credible explanation of the need for the change. Include information on the economic and technical aspects of the change. Give progress updates.

•Establish multiple channels of communication. Use several media and repeat key messages until the change has been implemented successfully.

•Make communication two-way. Provide forums for employees to ask questions, voice concerns and offer suggestions for making the new structure and processes work.

•Pay special attention to front-line supervisors and managers. Meet with them frequently to gauge their attitude and listen to concerns. Provide coaching and extra training in management and communication skills.

•Thank employees at every opportunity. Invite and respond to feedback. Reward positive attitudes and behaviour immediately and publicly.

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