Changes in employment & benefits: downsizing and working differently
Downsizing requires strategic thinking ahead, rolling out multi-layered communications and dealing intelligently with the needs of employees.
Depending on the circumstances and the number of redundancies involved, you might have to play ball with the unions to come to a deal they’d sign off on. The focus was on determining on who would stay and who had to go in one round of layoffs, before moving on to the next when the time came. Being willing to downsize was seen as a sign of strong leadership, a kind of tough love for the workplace.
Downsizing today requires many more skills. And it offers many more opportunities for working differently. It becomes a blend of strategic thinking ahead, rolling out multi-layered communications, and dealing intelligently—that is, above all empathetically—with the needs of individual employees. And the legal framework must be deployed appropriately.
Strategic planning first
Today, HR is part of a complex pattern of business planning. The department must be involved in any downsizing initiative from the get-go, right alongside other key functions such as legal, finance, internal and external communications, and sales and marketing. The way products are made or services are rendered is directly interwoven with a changing work organisation. Work becomes more and more a blend of multi-skilled teams, complex interference of processes between man and machine. Complex processes require the optimisation of working models, often without “dry” dismissals. This optimisation runs through the way teams are built. Teams are no longer pyramids, they are flat. Any optimal blueprint of a new organisation runs through such complex, proactive planning.
Communication at all levels
Communicating layoff today requires mastery of a lot of different domains, both inside and outside the organisation. It is key to have a compelling media strategy, covering both traditional and new media, and reaching out to stakeholders both within and outside the company, as well as to media organisations themselves. If the workplace is unionised, the union will clearly be a major stakeholder. And effective communication with customers will be key, especially if the scale of redundancies will be significant. Unions become less a privileged partner. Employee centricity becomes more and more important in any communication flow.
Downsizing, where that is necessary, necessarily involves striking a balance between the needs of the business and those of its employees. Those employees whom the business decides can stay on will perform at their best only if they are confident that their personal and social needs are being taken into account, and that new ways of working, flexibility in a range of areas, accountability, and open-mindedness are among the company’s new watchwords. Freedom and autonomy in taking your own decisions are often more important than a cash reward.
No company is an island. Every company is a brand, and every brand has a reputation. That reputation needs to be nurtured and burnished across all channels, in advertising, marketing communications, shareholder and stakeholder communications; in outreach to traditional media, and in the execution new-media campaigns. That applies to a downsizing initiative just as much as, and perhaps even more than, it does to the implementation of any change programme. Whatever the channel, the communication needs to be honest, open, and transparent. The key to staying afloat and thriving is the ability to maintain and enhance your organisation’s credibility with all major stakeholders.
Make use of the law
In pursuing any change agenda, if it not enough simply to apply the law. The law is a technical tool. The should be approached strategically, with vision and a sense of purpose.
Here’s a for instance: many companies go through entire rounds of downsizing without terminating a single employee. Rather they rely on dry dismissals—not replacing any employee who leaves the company and whose position is either not crucial or, if it is, can be filled from within the company’s existing ranks. And dry dismissals are just one of a number of creative solutions out there, waiting to be explored and tried out.
Empathetic change management
Downsizing must be part of empathetic change management. It requires a blend of different skills, not all of which are about numbers and severance packages. The focus of an initiative can’t simply be on the bottom line. Making this kind of change happen while attending to the interests of everyone concerned—particularly those facing redundancy—calls for a range of distinct but related talents that are too often in short supply but that are crucial if the success of such an initiative is to be measured not in redundancies made but in interests met.
Filip SaelensPartner Attorney at Law
Filip Saelens, attorney at law, is a local partner of the Employment & Benefits practice group in Belgium. He has over 30 years’ all-round experience in collective and individual employment law, with a particular focus on reorganisations and transformations, executive compensation, international mobility and the employment aspects of, mostly international, M&A-deals.T: +32 2 773 23 29 E: [email protected]