A Graceful Goodbye

Unfortunately in my career I have had to manage numerous restructuring exercises. Horrible stuff, but sometimes in the big picture for the organization’s longevity it is unavoidable and necessary.

Leaders understandably shy away from having to hold these conversations, not only afraid of the impact of the individual discussion, but also of tarnishing the reputation of the company and the people who stayed behind to do the heavy lifting after a number of their colleagues had left. The good news is that by following a few rules you can actually build the reputation of the company.

The key is to make sure that during downsizing, you deal with people ethically and morally.

This means that you don’t just hand employees a letter and let them know their time is done. You don’t block their email system access or ask them to pack their stuff and have them immediately escorted from the office property. Just imagine if this would happen to you, or if you see your colleagues been treated this way. How would you react…?

So how do you downsize with dignity? Here are some important rules:

1. Prepare. As Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success” (Do I need to say more???)

2. Be upfront. You will be surprised to find that people, even when faced with a possible redundancy, can be very resilient, if you are open with them and show trust and respect. Don’t be afraid of what might happen to your business results. If you treat people with consideration, they, in almost all cases, want to return the favor and want to go out on a high note.

3. Put yourself in their shoes.During a redundancy conversation, try to connect with the individual. The moment that the ‘message’ is out, individuals will most likely not hear the rest of the conversation as he or she will be distracted about all the consequences to follow. Who will look after my family? Who will pay the rent? How will I pay for my daughter’s wedding? How will I face my peers back in the office?

As an employer, do your best to really listen. Allow them to vent, don’t react, but empathize and let them know you care.

4. Take responsibility. Whether you agree or not with the decision to let people go is not important. During the conversation you are the representative of the organization and you have to live up to that. Don’t absolve yourself. The best position you can take is to be hard on ‘content’ (the decision) and ‘soft’ on the process (how it will be executed).

5. Put the individual at the steering wheel. People have a strong desire to be in control of their own destiny. Reinforce this belief by reminding them that they still have choices to make which are entirely within their control. Give them options about when and how they want to leave the company or give them a menu of redundancy pay out options. Provide them counseling and support in resume writing and interview skills.

Let them decide their exit path according to their individual needs.

6. Show appreciation. Let separating employees know how thankful you are for their service and loyalty to the business.

The focus in restructuring exercises should be as much on the employees who stay as those who leave. Take note – the way you treat the people who leave will have a significant impact on the people who will stay. The way exiting employees are treated is a reflection of company character and culture.

Growing a business is much more meaningful than having to restructure a business. However in the current economic climate you can’t hide from it. The best you can do is give those who are leaving a graceful goodbye.

– Paul Keijzer


4 thoughts on “A Graceful Goodbye

  1. Dear Paul,

    Very well articulated.
    This needs to be understood at the corporate level. Normally, it is mishandled and even the senior people are not prepared for such conversations individually or through group.
    Warm Regards,

  2. Having been on both sides of the desk in these situations many times, I can appreciate the advice you share here. Getting to the point, offering time for venting (respectful venting), maintain eye contact, and allow for emotion. Never easy, but doesn’t have to be horrible.

  3. A good theoretical article. yet the feelings of practically short sized employee can’t be condoled by such measures. parting after long time is not a small sorrow…

    • Nothing can take away the pain it causes when an employer has to make this decision. However I have practiced these principles in a great number of restructuring exercises and I know that they make the negative consequences, less negative. People will, rightfully so, never thank you for making them redundant, but when you go about it as humanly possible, it changes their overall experience.

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