Restructuring. Corporate realignment. Downsizing. Rightsizing.

In today’s rapidly shifting business landscape, it’s only natural that outplacement should assume a number of polite monikers. After all, structure must follow strategy. This means that structures must periodically be torn down, and staff must be informed that jobs no longer exist. But since these are real people with feelings and futures, the corporate language tries (as it should) to convey a spirit of optimism.

And yet, outplacement procedures rarely measure up to the cozy language built around them. This is mostly due to the motivation and methodology behind most corporate restructuring. The motivation is cost reduction, and methodology follows suit. When companies do have a sophisticated skills matrix—that is, a way to accurately audit and refine the people and skills available to them—their restructuring efforts look and feel different from the employee’s point of view. But most of the time, it looks exactly like what it is: A simple head count with a view toward cutting costs.

The failures here are many. When corporate restructuring is announced, companies consistently underestimate the impact of that announcement on staff morale. They simply do not grasp the importance of how the announcement is made, and how it can affect company culture in the long run.

What’s more, managers are often compelled to carry out such protocols by people less connected to the immediacy of the situation. The task of giving outplacement a sensitive, strategic appearance is therefore left to people whose strategic input was never sought in the first place, and who may indeed disagree with the strategy. This leaves them in an awkward position and makes their verbiage sound like so much ‘spin’.

Throughout the process, companies often continue to rely on managers through a process of “consultation.” This creates a kind of paralysis in which nobody can really say what’s on their mind. More often than not, a cloud of worry and tension descends over the office—and when it comes time to deliver the bad news, managers find themselves with little or no relevant experience.

Managers can be damaged by this. They don’t know how to handle the emotions of the people they’re outplacing, especially when they’ve grown close as colleagues. In many cases, managers feel as though they are betraying employees with whom they have long histories. In country and regional centres this can go even further. In a smaller community, the kids of both manager and employee go to the same schools. The families meet at the same social events, shop in the same supermarkets.

And what about the effects on staff? When companies don’t communicate effectively (and especially when the leader is silent), employees tend to make up or imagine their own versions of what is going to happen. This is fair enough, but it’s a tragic scenario that can create weeks of unneeded stress and tension. And even when employees do expect the worst, it rarely prevents them from going into shock when told that their outplacement fears have become a reality (If you’ve got time for deep reading, check out this study on how outplacement can affect mental health).

Ok, enough about the pitfalls and failures. What are the solutions of corporate outplacement?

First off, it helps to get advice on the process. This opens up larger perspectives and aligns the company with current best practices in the field of human resources.

Second, it helps when managers are properly trained to deal with various questions from staff, not to mention the emotional fallout that comes with significant outplacement events. Both managers and staff are left out in the cold when this training is not made a priority. It also helps managers understand the very real stresses faced by the “survivors” of the downsizing. It helps them understand the feelings of guilt often experienced by the survivors, the need to connect with them and work hard to restore morale and productivity.

Third, having an outplacement professional present when the news is given (or immediately after) significantly helps manage emotions. It also gives the company a boost of integrity in the eyes of everyone involved.

Fourth, and most important, is effective communication. This is the defining characteristic of every successful outplacement event and is an integral part of the planning. It’s easier said than done, and involves careful strategy from the executive level all the way to the employees being outplaced—but when it’s done right, it will undoubtedly:

  • Reduce stress levels and anxiety during the entire outplacement process
  • Give people something to hold on to in the future, should their position be made redundant
  • Help to keep staff engaged in their jobs during the consultation period (an absolute necessity that is often overlooked)
  • Show employees who are not outplaced, including managers involved in the outplacement process, that the company is genuinely interested in the well-being of employees (this is critical to post-restructuring performance as well as overall company culture).

If a company does not see the value of careful, meticulous outplacement procedures, is that company fully involved in the evolution of its performance, company culture and brand name?

My experience says no.

Australia may be lagging behind in best outplacement practices, but there is also good news. By laying the groundwork for positive outplacement procedures today, the pressure will be eased when restructuring does become necessary. Companies will then be able to call it what they want; the reality on the ground will be quality outplacement.

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