Who could have predicted the crisis that awaited us in 2020? Who could have predicted that our already strained economy would be tested to even greater limits by a pandemic of catastrophic proportions that would disrupt life as we know it?
Almost overnight, employers were thrust into a world of constant and uncertain change.
Regrettably, many have not survived or have gone into endless cycles of furloughing, retrenching, business rescue, unpaid leave, salary cuts and more to remain sustainable and viable beyond this black swan event.
Despite this, responsible employers have an ethical duty to treat their talent with dignity and respect, upholding the values they subscribed to when they eagerly shared their unique employee value proposition with individuals in more prosperous times.
Good talent is hard to come by and even more difficult to retain, and the way one treats employees during times of challenge is a true test of character that will determine how one’s organisation’s reputation survives, not only from a bottom-line perspective, but from an ethical and moral standpoint.
Another way of asking the question is: “Will the talent who are fortunate enough to remain employed feel proud to tell their friends and family who they work for and continue to fly the corporate brand high?”
This article deals with the inevitable trauma brought about by unavoidable retrenchments and how responsible employers can equip their employees with the resilience to cope and thrive, over and above complying with the legal requirements of a section 189 process.
A section 189 retrenchment process is the legal process contained in the Labour Relations Act that permits employers to dismiss employees for operational requirements, of which there are typically three:
1. Economic – the financial management of the organisation;
2. Technological – the introduction of new technology that affects work relationships – for example, by making existing jobs redundant or requiring employees to adapt to the technology or consequential restructuring of the workplace; and
3. Structural – the reduction of posts because the organisation requires a different structure/skills to remain relevant and sustainable.
Employees who face retrenchment (including those who may not ultimately be retrenched) will most likely display many forms of distress, including the well-known Kübler-Ross stages of grief – namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
A study undertaken by Lyndy van den Barselaar, the managing director of workforce solutions provider Manpower SA, has identified similar stages of distress experienced by employees during retrenchment processes, including shock, anger, depression, guilt (survivor guilt is often experienced by colleagues who are not retrenched themselves, but witness their colleagues losing their jobs ) and, hopefully, the final stage of acceptance and relief (May 2017).
To facilitate the process of enabling retrenched employees to reach the stage of acceptance and relief, leadership has an especially important role to play.
They need to communicate clearly and regularly, behave in a way that remains aligned to the organisation’s core values and philosophy, make sincere attempts to seek alternatives to job losses and, where possible, train employees to improve their chances of securing employment elsewhere or within the same organisation.
According to 21st Century, many employers are considering coaching as a progressive approach to equipping employees with the tools and techniques needed to build the resilience to move forward and thrive when retrenchments remain unavoidable.
Resilience can be likened to elasticity: the ability to be stretched (but not so far as to snap), to expand and adapt, despite the stressors placed on one.
Stress and traumatic experiences impact individuals differently and individuals, in turn, differ in their capacity for resilience. Effective coaching in these uncertain, difficult times can alleviate symptoms of trauma and increase resilience.
Skilled coaches can promote resilience through engaging coaching conversations that support individuals in adapting and thriving in action-oriented, empowering ways.
Coaches work in partnership with individuals as thinking partners and trusted advisers, building resilience by helping them focus on things they can control and let go of things they can’t control.
Career resilience, which is the ability to get back up after suffering adverse career circumstances and bounce back stronger than before, is a skill that can be taught and a “muscle” that can be developed by means of working with an effective coach.
It is easy for the mind to cycle through negative explanations for retrenchments and joblessness, but the way the retrenchment is framed is extremely powerful.
Owning one’s own narrative and allowing oneself to go through the stages of distress, as explained in the Kübler-Ross model, is crucial.
Once the acceptance stage has been reached, it is critical for individuals to create a sense of purpose and meaning.
This is especially true in the context of Covid-19. Pain ordinarily associated with job loss can easily be amplified not only by loneliness and financial strain, but by ambiguity and uncertainty.
There is a risk of negative thoughts becoming reality – and this is where the power of the narrative comes in: one needs to put the retrenchment into context.
Being retrenched can be devastating and feel very personal. Individuals may believe that colleagues who kept their positions were considered to be essential, while they were not.
Self-criticism can be psychologically harmful and hamper the ability to move forward.
Studies show that retrenched employees are prone to a wide range of negative effects, including mental and physical health issues, lifestyle and social life impacts, and newly stressful family dynamics.
In 2015, a study from the University of Manchester in the UK found that people retrenched from jobs continued to experience a diminished ability to trust others for up to a full decade. Other research suggests that it can take longer to get over a job loss than the death of a loved one.
Rather than obsessing over intrusive negative thoughts, affected individuals should remind themselves that this has happened during a crushing pandemic that has upended the entire global economy.
The virus did not single out specific individuals.
Even the way individuals talk about their retrenchment can affect the way others – their friends, family, former colleagues, potential employers and, above all, themselves – view their situation. Some people use the words “fired” and “retrenched” interchangeably, but there is a difference between being dismissed for a reason and having one’s job eliminated.
A dismissal suggests that the individual was at fault, while a retrenchment is typically a response to changes in company strategy or operational conditions beyond the individual’s control.
Taking meaningful action, such as doing the necessary paperwork, right-sizing one’s household budget and doing online courses to brush up on skills, will help individuals avoid plummeting into downward stress spirals.
Action is one of the best antidotes to self-doubt and downward stress spirals.
Working with a skilled, action-oriented coach can also assist greatly in finding solutions and new career avenues in a proactive manner by building skills, acquiring the relevant tools and developing resilience.
As an employer, we recommend these creative and “out-of-the-box” solutions as part of both a new employee value proposition and what makes employees able to name their employer with a smile on their face and courage in their heart.
• Crafford and Gush are executive consultants at 21st Century