[Two Cents] Compassion's the word

Layoffs are inevitable in these disruptive times, but they don't have to be ruthless.

Please excuse my somewhat solemn tone – but there’s something on my mind.

We’ve just crossed the first quarter of 2018, and at least five prolific retrenchment exercises have been announced or already taken place.

Consider the list of companies involved: Kimberly- Clark, Xerox, Coca-Cola, General Electric, and Carrefour, just to name the biggest reorganisers. The reasons for all the restructuring are mostly the same: falling revenues amid growing competition and a volatile market.

Xerox’s CEO said the drastic move comes at a time when the paper company is struggling in an “increasingly severe” market landscape that has seen many of its biggest customers take on a paperless strategy.

Meanwhile, Kimberly-Clark has had to resort to slashing 15% of its workforce, or some 5,500 workers, because falling birth rates had driven sales for its once-highly-lucrative diaper business down.

In these unpleasant and uncertain times, it is HR once again that finds itself right in the middle of the upheaval. These are the moments when HR’s soft skills are truly put to the test.

The textbook strategy of open communication and compassion – as obvious, simple, and repetitive as it sounds – has become more crucial than ever.

Yet, it remains something that many HR departments still struggle to master. 

Just take a look at the way Singapore real estate firm Surbana Jurong and Indian IT giant Tech Mahindra handled employee exits in 2017. The former allegedly sought to dress up retrenchments as voluntary exits in order to avoid employee entitlements, while the latter gave excess staff a heartless “resign or be sacked with no compensation” ultimatum.

When the volume of cuts to be made gets high, it is understandable for the business to approach the exercise as efficiently as possible. But HR leaders should also remember that people’s livelihoods and feelings are involved in the process.

So rather than delivering the news in a curt manner, communicate clearly and openly. Even if the facts are harsh, being candid will actually help the affected parties more than beating around the bush.

Of course, speaking forthrightly does not mean telling employees they have to pack up their belongings and be out the door within the next hour. Rather, good communication, as Technip India’s HR Director Nikhil Shahane told me last month, means giving each individual a proper explanation of the business’ decision to reduce headcount.

It also means providing them a listening ear so that they can voice out whatever concerns they might have. It might even mean you having to play shrink, comforting staff and helping them to re-find their path. 

Fortunately, I have never been on either side of the conversation. But I imagine being laid off would be like a break-up – something I am a little more familiar with.  And the golden rule on breakups is that you need to provide a proper explanation. No text messages or, worse, silent deleting of social media accounts.

No one likes to be left hanging, particularly when it concerns the end of a relationship – personal or professional. Everyone deserves a closure, even when the end is bitter, and never sweet.  

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