More than Treading Water: How HR Departments Play A Crucial Role in Struggling Companies

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Almost all companies go through periods of downsizing. It’s never anyone’s first choice, but companies will inevitably shed jobs in an unsteady economy. How a company handles this unfortunate business can make or break their credibility in the eyes of their employees.

Any downsizing, whether it’s a necessity brought about by economic stress or just a routine right-sizing, is very likely to cause those employees who remain employed no small amount of anxiety. They will have questions about everything from the future of the company to the security of their own jobs, and Human Resources departments bear much of the burden of communicating this information.

Luis Rodriguez, HR Manager at the TheLadders.com, a career services platform, says that when it comes to companies in flux, HR departments should focus on availability and honesty. “I think the first thing an HR team should do in the event of a layoff or any kind of major change is to keep an open door. Make sure your colleagues know you’re available. Be honest and sympathetic, and make sure your coworkers know that it’s not the end of the world. You’re still going to help them focus on their professional development. None of that has changed.” Rodriguez also added, “it’s crucial that your team be on the same page before you start meeting with your coworkers. Make sure that they know what the message is and can deliver it clearly and consistently.” 

Get on the same page

No matter the size of your HR department, it’s important to present a consistent message to your coworkers. Few things are more toxic and counterproductive in the workplace than rumors about the company’s health or changes in its policy. In the event of a layoff, speak with your executive team. Get a handle on the situation and the way they want it to be communicated. (If your company has a VP of HR or Chief People Officer, this information will likely flow down from them. Smaller companies, however, may not have this luxury.) Once you’ve determined what the company’s position is, give your team a briefing. Make sure they know the message and can present it clearly. Also make sure they’re prepared to field the most obvious questions, and know to whom they should refer more delicate inquiries.

Keep an Open Door

Once you’ve got the message in place, let your coworkers know you’re there for them. This is one of the most important — and one of the easiest — steps an HR department can take to help keep a company moving forward. Consider setting a university-style office hours policy for the first week after a layoff. This means that your coworkers can come by and chat about their questions or anxieties during a certain time period.

Be honest

This one is pretty self-explanatory. When delivering your message, do it in a frank and forthright fashion. Remember, your coworkers are likely to be uncertain about the health of the company, so it’s fine to be sympathetic. Of course, don’t give away any sensitive company information, no matter how much you think it may smooth ruffled feathers.

Don’t lose sight of what matters

As the old song goes, “the sun’ll come up tomorrow.” Despite the shake-up, you still owe it to your coworkers to have their best interests at heart. Let them know that you’re still committed to their professional development, as well as making sure their voices are heard. If your company offers training or development initiatives, remind them to take advantage. The same goes for a 401(k) or any other benefits — make sure your coworkers know that when it comes to business, a slip doesn’t mean you’re going to fall.

In many cases, the HR team serves as the internal face of the company’s management. When you speak to your colleagues, you’re speaking for the executive team. The way you and your department handle a difficult situation can be the difference between a company whose best talent stays and rides out the storm, and a company whose A+ players run for the lifeboats at the first sign of trouble.

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