Leading through change is a learned skill that many of us acquire on the job or while crisis or change occurs. Too often, during these times employees and the Human Resources team, are viewed as a cost function and they are the first groups to be affected. As a senior HR support, I work with management teams in several capacities. One of them is to assist proactively when planning for times of change, crisis, downturn, but more commonly when reacting to change that has already happened before downsizing or shutting down the business is required.

When we examine the hierarchy of business and how it plays a part during change, let’s remember that employees don’t have a seat at the table. This means that they’re watching how leadership is acting, and because perception is reality, this can cause a lot of uncertainty. They may ask themselves; “Does the organization have a plan? Did they ever anticipate this change or crisis happening? How are they looking after us?” While this is most recently depicted through managing the COVID-19 pandemic, change happens constantly and on different scales.

To eliminate this perception, it is essential that communication with your employees is comprehensive and addresses ‘the why’. This is increasingly important now as we are managing virtual teams and without in-person dialogue, leaders need to be hyper-aware of their actions, their communication, and their follow up. Lack of communication commonly results in several things. Firstly, employees tend to believe what they hear which leads to losing face in their organization and losing faith in their employer or leaders. Should this occur organizations will see; employees disengage, productivity dip, absenteeism rise, and a lack of regard for the schedule; showing up late or leaving early. Secondly, employees may also start to look for new employment, whether quietly or openly, they will search for something that seems a bit more stable. Lastly, in the more extreme cases, they also may quit in anticipation of a layoff or a termination. So, how do you prevent things from starting on a bad foot? Nothing can happen overnight, but leaders must put a plan in place so that when asked, they have something to share with employees in times of turmoil.

Some traditional solutions that organizations turn to during difficult times would be; lay-offs, red circle (freeze) wages and/or cut, alter or eliminate total compensation packages, which include bonuses, incentive pay, and even some portions of benefit plans. During a crisis, benefit plans are valuable because people need mental health check-ins and to see their doctor or other health
professionals. Whether right or wrong, these actions are viewed as cost-saving measures and while some may be required, if they are acted on hastily, they can diminish engagement, break trust and permanently hurt employees and the organization’s reputation.

As a perfect example, when COVID-19 began and it started to affect businesses, some organizations laid off all their employees and shut their doors. While this may have seemed like a good plan at the time, employees; watched how the situation was handled, possibly lost respect for the organization and may not return when recalled. This could put their position as an employer of choice at risk, and ultimately damage the company from hiring great people in the future.

As a best practice, we can all try to anticipate change and while many organizations prepare for it, it is important to have a quantitative plan in place if a reduction in force is required. This allows their strategy to lead decisions as opposed to knee jerk reactions or gut feelings.

I encourage all leaders to think of your employees as assets, not as liabilities. They are a key part of your intellectual property, and in many cases, they are your competitive advantage. If you’re not at a point where you have to downsize, it is in your best interest to keep your employees as long as you can. The latest turnover statistics show that it can cost an organization between 50-60% (SHRM.org) of an employees’ salary to replace them, which is a direct hit to the bottom line.

There are many best practices, some common and others more unique, that organizations can adopt to manage and protect their human capital. Some of the common best practices are;
– Track performance against job expectations
– Track productivity; team and individuals
– Follow change management
– Implement disaster recovery and emergency preparedness plans; and
– Identify key people.

Some of those creative solutions are;
– cross-training
– job sharing or work-sharing programs
– temporary job re-assignments
– encourage paid vacation
– offer or implement furlough days
– offer job-protected educational leaves

While you may have heard of some of these best practices, there are creative ways of implementation within each organization and many of them take no capital at all, just engaged
leaders with a plan of how to move forward. Whether you have tried these methods or whether some of them are new to you, I encourage anyone who wants to learn more, to reach out to Involvi Consulting to assist you in making a plan to protect your greatest assets, your people.

Ashley McKarney
Founder & Lead Consultant
Involvi Consulting