humane and responsible retrenchment practices Wendy Tan

In Singapore, there are 19,170 retrenchments in 2016, the second highest in the past 10 years. Early in my career, some of my colleagues were retrenched and they were asked to go on the same day. As a young professional, I wondered why it had to be so harsh. My HR director, a caring man with integrity, said, “There are security risks.” He was referring to possibility of employees stealing data, messing with the production or inciting others to be negative. Being young and malleable, I accepted the explanation. My heart continues to wrench whenever I read about retrenchments. Even after 20 years of professional experience.

The recent retrenchment incidents led to further reflection. It dawned on me that our common retrenchment practice is based on a Western model. In Western medicine, doctors perform surgery to remove harmful cells in cancer patients, with the hope of a clean cut will increase the chance of survival. This has saved my mother in law who suffered from breast cancer. I have also seen the after-effects. The body takes time to recover with symptoms.

“This clean surgical cut is similar to the typical retrenchment where excess people are cut off. Cleanly, sharply and efficiently.”

They are informed, asked to pack up and leave typically within the same day. Just like surgery, there are after-effects. Morale suffers and the organization takes time to recover. But unlike cancer cells, often people asked to leave are not cancerous or harmful, they just have skill sets that are no longer needed.

When a part of the whole ceases, the whole is impacted. It is easy for survivors to wonder, “When we are needed, the organization demands our commitment, but when we not needed, we are simply cut off.” The impact on the whole is not so visible, nor it is measurable. Just like chi (life energy), it cannot be measured, but the absence of it is death. In the worst case, cynicism sets up, and it’s easy to think,

“A job is just a job. I am paid to do my job.” Period.

So then, how can we expect people to take risks to innovate, go the extra mile or be passionate about their jobs? The same HR director once advised me, “Work is not personal. Don’t take it personally.” I understand that, it’s a defence mechanism to protect us from disappointment. But creativity is personal, passion is personal, service is personal. It comes from the heart. An impersonal or even cold heart cannot create or serve.

Is there an alternative model of exercising retrenchment? I understand companies need to retrench because the entire ship is in danger of sinking and they are often in a dire financial situation to consider this move. At the same time, companies need to rally the survivors and cultivate the fighting spirit to overcome the challenge. So while retrenchment is a necessary evil, can we administer this bitter medicine more humanely?

“Caring for the whole and having a holistic approach to retrenchment gives your organization the best chance to succeed.”

I once interviewed a business manager, in a multi-national company, headquartered in United States. Due to the change in business strategy, some employees were no longer needed. They were given three months to re-organize. The headquarters expected the Singapore office to re-size and re-deploy people into the right place immediately and see results in 2 quarters.

But the local management negotiated for more time. They gave the redundant staff 1-month notice period to find new jobs, whilst holding on to the roles. On top of the usual outplacement services and HR support, colleagues and bosses reached out to their networks to find opportunities. A few managed to land on new roles smoothly. This period also gave time to handover to surviving colleagues facilitating knowledge transfer. It gave them opportunities to say good bye. Most importantly, surviving staff saw how these retrenched staff were treated with dignity and care. Their commitment level went up.

Can we take small steps towards more humane retrenchment? I want to challenge the 1-day notice period. Why does it have to be 1-day? Another senior HR practitioner says, “if it is client facing or sensitive, usually it’s short notice.” Does this mean the 1-day notice is to prevent any chance to create havoc? This smells of distrust. An employee is trusted for 18 years to get work done and suddenly she can’t be trusted anymore because she has to leave? A retrenched employee can subsequently be contract help, an ambassador or even a client. Can we trust one another to strike a gentlemanly agreement in the final days?

Or maybe it’s to avoid any awkward feelings for the axed, survivors and executors? What do we say to the unfortunate colleagues? How would these colleagues feel? We expect feelings like denial, anger, depression before acceptance sets in. These emotions are not comfortable. But facing them helps both parties move towards reconciliation. Can we allow space for reconciliation?

Or maybe time is the essence –

“We need to move on quickly, so 1-day notice”. This reason smacks of leadership incompetence.

How many months have the leadership team mulled over this decision or seen the market shift months, if not years earlier and not changed fast enough? So these axed employees pay the price? Typically, management has mulled over such decisions for some time, so they are mentally prepared, but they expect the axed and survivors to accept and move on in 1 day?

Beyond the collective agreements or tripartite guidelines, it is compassion and empathy that helps us, the axed, survivors and executors get through the pain of retrenchment. I urge employers and managers to consider a holistic approach to retrenchment:

  • Have a longer notice period.
  • Manage access to sensitive information as needed.
  • Handover and tie up the loose ends.
  • Help your employees say ‘goodbye’, so all parties can move forward productively.
  • Show appreciation to the retrenched staff and have a farewell party.
  • Write a LinkedIn recommendation on the strengths and contributions of the axed colleague(s).
  • Recommend them to your network personally. Don’t just leave it to outplacement agencies or government agencies.
  • Call them a few weeks after they leave, ask them how they are and just listen. You don’t need to provide answers.
  • Invite them back for team celebrations where appropriate.
  • Brainstorm together with them on build their career plan, because you can see their strengths more clearly than they can.

It’s all about the personal touch that makes the difference. It shows trust and respect for one another. It helps the axed recover and be a positive ambassador to your organization. Survivors also know that you’re a worthy employer to work with. Caring for the whole and having a holistic approach to retrenchment gives your organization the best chance to succeed.

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