The role of leaders in off-boarding professionally

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‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’ – Maya Angelou

His voice on the phone sounded anxious and irritated. As a leader of his department, he has been asked to inform several of his subordinates that they will be made redundant.
“They have not done anything wrong,” he emphasized. “It is the COVID 19 and the economic circumstances that have led to this situation.” In spite of his years of experience as a leader and him being in his mid-50’s, he still found this task difficult and hard.

Nobody is happy to communicate bad news. However, in leadership roles we are sometimes required to do so. In fact, it is important to research the best practices in this area, so leaders are well prepared to do this task professionally and with compassion. An organization ought to make it less difficult for both parties, those who have been tasked to communicate the bad news (by training them and putting a well thought out process) and those who are on the receiving end of it.

When it comes to off-boarding employees, and because the legal requirements are different depending on location and type of contract …etc., experienced legal counsel is required in advance of any communication or action on this front.

‘Professionalism: It is not the job you do; it’s HOW you do the job’ – anonymous

Here is a list of the best practices from a recent off-boarding (redundancy exercise) by a company in the region (not related to the leader referenced in the introduction). I have intentionally not shared the name of the company; that said, their written communication is in fact a credit to them and a ‘best practice’.

1. The CEO wrote to everyone in the organization to share the news and specify the number of employees who will depart. When there is no communication, the rumours are often worse than the reality! Lack of communication can lead to loss of focus by everyone and heightened anxiety and confusion.

2. The title of the communication was Securing (name of the organization) through these uncertain times. The title itself explains why the redundancies are being made, to ensure that the organization does not go bankrupt and is able to continue to operate into the future.

The communication was broken down into sections:

Why this is happening?

a. Explained that all other means and cost cutting measures have been exhausted in order to secure the company. The point being, this was the last resort, everything else that could be done has been studied and considered.
b. Stated the facts: business is down by more than 80 percent and the recovery timeline is alarmingly unknown. Referenced previous communication with the team. So the ‘alarm bells’ were signaled to the team and they were kept informed of the dire business situation. Redundancies would have been expected given the previous communication regarding the figures, loss of revenue …etc.

How we made these decisions

a. Highlighted that letting people go is never easy, particularly during a time when re-employment right-away may be challenging.

b. The strategic guardrails and principles for the cuts were shared.

c. Explained that each of the leaders then had to identify people who would go, but making a distinction between tech and non-tech colleagues, in order to protect the tech colleagues, in relative terms so as that ”we can continue to invest in our products, and emerge from the crisis with even better products.” This is a case-specific point, but the larger issue is that the redundancies need to be part of the overall business strategy, continuity and future outlook.

d. Communicating the human side: ”the sessions (with the leaders to decide on redundancies) were emotionally exhausting and we had to keep reminding ourselves that were doing it to secure the company.”

What will happen to departing colleagues?

a. ”We will make this process as kind and caring as possible”. Treating people the way you would want to be treated is always a good guiding principle.

b. Departing colleagues will receive an email to meet one-on-one with their team lead and people engagement director. The first will take the team members through the decision and the second will explain the off-boarding process.

c. For compliance and security purposes, after the meeting, access to company equipment will be partially restricted.

d. Slack and Zoom accounts will stay active for some time to say goodbye to colleagues.
e. You will have time to download personal items. Company laptop or smartphone can be kept until you can procure alternative means. (Very thoughtful!).

f. Measures have been put in place to return company items and collect personal belonging from the office.

g. Benefits at time of departure were explained.

h. Visa and medical insurance for the employee and family have been extended until year end for those working in a country other than their own.

i. Counseling and outplacement services are provided in order to ”get you (the employee) through this event and find your next professional opportunity”.

j. Departing employees, will be able to join a Slack community where job opportunities will be posted when the company is hiring again. Former employees who start-up their own companies in the future can also post jobs on this community.

For those staying, what’s next?

It is expected that a morale dip is likely to happen, so meetings with those staying were planned to answer questions, explain the way forward and the key priorities in the coming period in order to bounce back from the crisis.

If your company does not have someone on its leadership team who has been part of an off-boarding process before, it would be helpful to locate an external consultant who has had first-hand experience in this process. Times like these require experts on the wheel who can steer things professionally!

The purpose of this piece is not to exhaust every step in the process or tackle every angle, but to highlight the importance of having a sharp mind that is able to design a robust process, and a warm heart that is capable of communicating it with compassion. Done well, you can avoid/minimize law suits, negative reputation and retaliation agendas.

‘Compassion does not weaken leadership; it makes it stronger’ – Rudy Giuliani

Ayman Madkour’s motto is “Be inspired, Be inspiring”. He is a Middle East based professional with a global exposure to 37 countries on five continents. He is a certified Talent, Human Resources and Leadership development consultant and senior facilitator, coach, assessor, storyteller and author.

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