The news media frequently offers us fascinating real-life workplace case studies. They offer an endless source of information about how to do things the right way in the workplace and, unfortunately, how not to do things in the workplace.
A recent case in point occurred earlier this month when the National Research Council (NRC) announced and implemented significant workforce terminations. The terminations were part of an important overall organizational shift as NRC increases the focus of their efforts on commercially viable research activities. The shift was part of a year-long transition and the unfortunate impact of this shift was the termination of 65 NRC employees, approximately 47 of whom worked in Winnipeg.
At the same time employees were being laid off, the employer provided all employees with a three-dollar coffee and donut gift card. The gift card was their way of thanking staff for their contribution to helping the organization successfully work through the massive transformation that was underway. The gift card was presented to the remaining staff as well as those whose employment was being terminated. Not surprisingly, many employees reacted negatively to the three-dollar coffee and donut card gesture.
Some employees welcomed the recognition gesture while others felt the gesture was “awful” or “a kick in the teeth”. On one hand, the gesture might be included under the well-known workplace initiative category of “no good deed goes unpunished”. On another level, the gesture can be seen as “too little too late”. From a third perspective, the gesture can be seen as a “good idea with very bad timing”.
A Difficult and Unpleasant Activity
Workforce reductions are rarely welcome news, creating a significant blow to the employees directly affected and their families. Reductions also seriously impact those who remain in the organization who may feel a sense of loss for their departing coworkers and a sense of uncertainty as many aspects of their workplace are changing.
How can organizations prepare for and effectively handle this unpleasant and difficult task? It all starts long before terminations are necessary with careful and effective planning and leadership.
Honest Ongoing Communication – All organizations go through growth and reduction phases over time. When they become absolutely necessary, workforce reductions should not come as a major surprise to employees. Effective organizations ensure that employees are aware of the major factors and challenges affecting the business; they share the good news and the bad so that employees are aware of major changes that are coming. It is too late to start the communication process when major changes are imminent.
Termination Policies and Procedures – Employers should develop and maintain policies and procedures that provide guidance and information to both the organization and its employees in the event that termination of employment becomes necessary. This will help all employees understand what to expect when workforce reductions occur.
Planning for Termination Starts Upon Employment – The best time to establish and agree upon the terms surrounding termination of employment is right at the start of employment. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but, if you think about it, this approach makes perfect sense. Employment agreements or offers of employment should clearly set forth the employer’s policy and the agreement of the parties with respect to employment termination. This will help eliminate problems down the road should termination of employment become an unfortunate necessity.
The Bigger Picture – The timing of announcements and the actual implementation of workforce reductions requires careful consideration. There may be no good timing for workforce reductions, but there are certainly examples of bad timing to consider. The NRC story offers readers a reminder of the need to carefully maintain awareness of workplace initiatives planned around the time of workplace reductions. In this case, the feelings of both the terminated employees and the remaining employees weren’t considered and it became a workplace and PR issue very quickly.