Martin Birt | January 16, 2015 1:17 PM ET
Stop me if this sounds familiar: A vice president of operations calls a town-hall meeting after the Friday afternoon shift. “You all know that this unit has been unprofitable for some time now.” (Did they really know? Who told them?) “We have decided to close this location. I have to catch a plane though, so I’m going to hand you over to our hapless human resources manager (HHRM) for more details. Good luck.”
The HHRM takes over:
“Um. I just heard about this about an hour ago. I’ll need some time to work out severance packages. Oh. And I’ll talk to the VP as soon as he gets back — next week, I think — about maybe transferring some folks who are willing to move to other locations. I’m not sure how this might work. But have a great weekend.”
This all-too-familiar approach can engender (healthy) mistrust in the minds of employees in other locations — to say nothing of exposing the employer to potential legal fallout. Think about their commitment and engagement!
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The old adage is trite but nonetheless true: change is the only constant in business. In the past month alone, several high-profile employers have deemed it necessary to lay off Canadian employees in response to shifting market conditions, including Target (17,600), Suncor (1,000), Shell (200) and Sony (100).
Communication of a significant business change affecting employment is very important. In Canada, the courts have determined that the content, timing and method of employment termination communications can impact whether or not — and the extent to which — damages are awarded.
That’s why employers should have in place what I call a strategic “long-game communications plan.” A long-game communications plan should keep employees abreast of the market forces acting on the business and their employment prospects. Involve your HR manager and an employment lawyer in your communications planning and lean on them to help develop a set of HR principles that will be applied, should something as drastic as a closure be decided.
Your communications plan can follow a simple outline of “who, what, when, how.”
Who: Define your audiences
- Employees directly affected by the decision
- Employees indirectly affected by the decision
- Customers and suppliers
- Potential purchasers of your divestment
- New suppliers of your outsourced function
- The stock market and your shareholders
What: Develop your messages
Have a process ready and tell people how decisions will be made, when and on what principles.
Select someone to have clear oversight and responsibility for the various communications.
Messages should be tailored to specific audiences, but they must not be in conflict.
Be as detailed as you can as soon as you can.
Be frank, but avoid veering into the speculative regarding things that are not firm. If decisions have not been made, say so.
When: Coordinate timing of delivery
This can be a complex undertaking. Be proactive with employee communications and be prepared to talk to them first. Otherwise, communications to potential purchasers or new suppliers may very well become known to your employees before you take the time to talk to them.
Employee communications must be coordinated with any public announcements, especially if your divestment or outsourcing plan may be deemed material to in the stock market. Consult your treasurer or appropriate legal counsel.
How: Plan for the delivery
Face-to-face is always better when communicating with employees who will be directly affected. Other modes of communication may be appropriate for other audiences.
Management should own and deliver employee communications. Important messages must be delivered with credibility and decision makers have that credibility
HR experts or other staffers should be on hand to answer questions or talk about specific, more complex issues such as pensions and benefits plans.
If you follow these steps, when change does come — and it inevitably will — you will have mitigated the risk of legal liability because employees will have had some context for what’s to come and some certainty about their treatment.
Martin Birt is the president of HRaskme.com and has been in the human resources consulting business for 30 years.
Published by: National Post, Canada