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How to lead your team through a redundency programme

There is something that every leader I know dreads having to do, and that's making people redundant.

But right now it's something more and more of us are having to do, and I think it's a good thing that we dread it - we should care about the people we lead and having to let them go through no fault of their own is horrid, for everyone.

When things are tough like this, good leadership shows and great leadership shines.

It is going to be tough, but what if you were able to work through it constructively and position everyone for their success in the future, whether that's inside your organisation or inside someone else's?

So are you ready? It's time to get curious and make some choices about how you lead when there are redundancies in the air

Am I going to have to lead my team through a redundancy programme?

The CIPD, Chartered Institute of Personel and Development is reporting that 1 in 3 companies are planning redundancies, and the Office of National Statistics is reporting an even higher number with 2 in 5 planning redundancies when the government's job support scheme ends and people return to work from furlough.

With over 7.5 million people still on the Furlough Scheme at the start of August, whichever way you look at it, the number of leaders who are going to have to lead their teams through the redundancy process is huge.

And the chances are most of us dread having to be one of the leaders in that position. In all my year's working in change and with managers who are having to consider making people redundant I've never met anyone who looked forward to it or who didn't mind doing it.

I've never met a corporate terminator like George Clooney's character in the film Up in the Air, and alas I've never met George Clooney! The film fascinated me on so many levels, when I watched it I was travelling extensively for work and it was intrigued to see a very different version of the lifestyle played back to me and to see how they handled the firings.

And I get it, the idea of hiring someone to have that difficult conversation for you is tempting. If I never have to hold another redundancy meeting I will be thrilled. But even if this is an option in your situation, it's got some serious downsides for your team on an ongoing basis. The film is, however, a good watch and you might learn some things you don't want to do or say if you are making people redundant as well as a few things you might find useful.

How are you going to approach leading a redundancy programme?

So making redundancies is going to test your leadership, and you have a choice how you approach this test.

You could choose to avoid the issue for as long as possible and if you engage in the process at all only do so at a surface level, doing the absolute minimum and letting other people take control, leaving yourself and your team as victims of the redundancy programme.

Or maybe you will choose not to be quite that bad, and do what needs to be done but without taking any ownership or responsibility and keep things going as close to normal as possible just, leaving what happens as a big elephant in the room, with everyone worrying and thinking about it and no one feeling safe or really able to get their work done while it's there. Surely it will be OK and be safe if you hide behind the process and use that as a way of disowning any responsibility.

Or maybe you will choose to step up and lead your team with empathy, compassion, humanity and with a determination to create the best future you can for everyone involved, those staying and those who are going.

I'm hopeful that the third option sounds good but you may be wondering if that is possible or even realistic.

Is it possible to lead a redundancy programme with good outcomes for everyone?

Just as we were heading into the last recession here in the UK I was involved in a major redundancy programme. My role was being made redundant and the last piece of work I was asked to do was to make about 1/3 or a large function of the organisation redundant too.

This wasn't the first round of redundancies this leadership team had faced, they didn't want to do it and they were acutely aware of the impact that going through this process can have on a team. According to all the internal measures their team was the least engaged least satisfied in the whole organisation.

At our first meeting to discuss the redundancy programme it was clear what they didn't want as a team and that we needed to do things very differently. To stop them falling into a poor me pitty party I asked them to tell me how they wanted the process to be and how they would know if they had achieved it. As they started to describe how they wanted to treat people and how they wanted the team to be after the redundancies, not in terms of roles but it terms of what it would be like to work as part of that team everyone's body language changed, they sat forward in their chairs and the energy in the room was electric.

The leaders were very competitive and wanted to do a better job, not just better than their best, but better than any other function in the organisation. We were able to pull together a list of guiding principles that we as a leadership team were going to hold ourselves to account for and which we then went on the use to guide our decision making and how we approached both the conversations we had and how we implemented the legal processes involved.

And just to be clear, you need to ensure you are following the legal requirements and any guidelines that your company has in place - they are there for a reason, what we are talking about here is how you do that, the approach you take to following the mandatory steps.

When the time came to announce the redundancy programme we talked about our hopes for the process. We were realistic and didn't promise that everything would be OK for everyone, but we did talk about how we wanted to make sure everyone was treated as an individual and with respect and dignity, regardless of the outcome of the process for them. We talked about how we would make the process as quick as we could while keeping it fair. We asked them to suggest ways we could do things so that they would feel supported and asked them to tell us when something felt off or not aligned with the principles we had talked about.

What did this mean for the leadership team?

This took courage and unity from the leadership team and a genuine curiosity in what would be best for each individual. We didn't promise we could do the things they wanted but we did commit to listening and being clear what we could and couldn't do.

The leaders I was working with committed fully to serving their teams during this process, they put people first and remembered that they were leaders first and friends second.

And yes there were lots of tough decisions and tough conversations, and yes there was a lot of both coffee and wine drunk, but they worked as a team and supported each other too. They had chosen how they were going to do this, how they were going to lead, and they made the process work for their teams and for them.

All the leaders publically committed to sharing information when they could, and to communicate regularly even if it was to say that there was no news, knowing that when they didn't communicate people would assume the worst.

It was the first time I'd seen people who were leaving the organisation thank the person who had made them redundant for the way they had been treated. What's more, almost everyone left the organisation feeling good about themselves and the process, and ready to think about the next steps for them. 

People leaving is not the end of the process

If handled badly being made redundant can leave a huge scar on the person and it can take a while for them to process that and be ready to look for their next role. If you have ever done much interviewing or if you think about friends who have been made redundant, I'm sure you can think of someone who was a ball of anger and hurt and not able to let go of their previous job and the pain it caused them. Until someone is through that they are going to struggle to get another job or even see any opportunities they have. And what was great about what this leadership team achieved was they didn't leave people in that position.

The individuals who leave are not the only ones who suffer from a poorly lead redundancy programme. Those who are staying can suffer too. I've seen many a leader, even those who have experienced redundancy programmes before, assume that those who get to keep their jobs will be OK and just carry on as normal.

But that's not how it is, often they are suffering from a kind of survivor guilt, feeling guilty that they got to keep their job while their friends and colleagues didn't. They may well be worried about the people who have left. On top of that, they are probably worrying about how they are going to get everything done now there are less people to do it, and if their own job is all that secure.

You, as a leader, need to make it OK to talk about these concerns and to talk about the people you all used to work with. Share their stories and share their news where it's appropriate. Make sure you listen and don't just dismiss their concerns. The people who are staying will have noticed and remembered how you treated those who left, further reinforcing why it's important to decide how you are going to be as a leader during this process.

A redundancy programme is a change programme for everyone involved, and thinking about what is going to help people through that and building that into your plan and knowing what you are doing to lead your team will ease the process for everyone including yourself. You are going to need to lean into all your experience leading change and if you are looking for some tips, I share lots in episodes 3 and 4 of this podcast - What leaders need to do when leading change.

What else did we do?

So going back to the case study I was telling you about.

As well as making sure the people in our teams felt supported we also made sure that the leaders felt supported as leaders too. For example, we set up a buddy system and regular drop-in sessions for them and we made coaching from a specialist coach available to them as often as they wanted it, and suggested they booked sessions every couple of weeks just to check-in.

As the programme progressed and more leaders joined the team making the changes happen we ensured they got extra support too.

Once we knew who was staying and who was going, we needed to start thinking about the future and bringing the function back together again so it could fulfil its role in the organisation. This felt really awkward for just about everyone - many of the people who had been selected for redundancy hadn't left yet as the company policy was for them to work their notice.

As a leadership team, we spent many hours discussing how to handle this. We didn't want to isolate them by excluding them, but we also didn't want to rub salt into the wound by expecting them to get involved in designing a future they didn't want to be part of. Both those went against our principle of treating people as humans with empathy and respect. We had to dig a bit deeper into our principles to get to where we had said we would let people control the parts of the process that we could. This was one of those times where we let the people who were leaving make a choice about this for themselves. Some chose to get involved in designing the future, wanting to do what they could to leave the organisation in as strong a position as they could, while others chose to pick up bits of work which allowed others to focus on the future.

What results can this kind of approach get?

You may be wondering what difference taking this approach made.

The company ran its annual employee survey just after the majority of people who were leaving the organisation left. Typically this would be a time when team morale and employee engagement would be low.

This leadership team encouraged their teams to complete the anonymous survey to help them understand what else they could do to support the team going forward. We got an exceptionally high return rate, I mentioned that they were competitive and this had been one of their goals.

But that wasn't the only thing they did well at - they went from having the least satisfied and least engaged team to having the most engaged team by a considerable margin and to having the joint most satisfied team in the organisation.

It took a lot of work and dedication to make that happen, but it is possible to emerge the other side of a redundancy programme in a strong position and having positioned those who have had to leave to succeed in whatever comes next for them.

Summary & Taking Action

So in this episode, I've talked about lots of things that could help you lead your team through a redundancy programme should you find yourself needing to. The main ideas I hope you will take away are,

  • That you can decide how you want to be as a leader, the values and behaviours you are going to show
  • That you can then actively translate that down into how you implement the process, the process may be fixed but how you act in those meetings and how you demonstrate that people are more important than the process is within your control
  • That it's really important to listen to people and spend a lot of time communicating
  • That it's important to treat everyone, those who are leaving and those who are staying with dignity and respect - its going to be remembered
  • A redundancy programme is a change programme that goes beyond the day the people being made redundant leave. So you are going to have to use all your change leadership skill and you are going to have to focus on bringing your team back together and moving towards your new future.

The things I share in this podcast are based on my experience, and some will be more relevant to you than others. It's up to you to decide what you take away from this episode and apply to your role, that's what being a curious choice leader is all about, getting curious, building your understanding and then making choices about what is right for you and your business. The future of our leadership and our teams is created in how we handle this kind of situation. So the question I would like to leave you with is,

How are you going to BE as a leader in an environment where people are being made redundant?