The Importance of Proper Transition
Here is the third installment of our weekly series Departing with Dignity, a conversation between Higher Landing Founder & CEO Jackie Rafter and Brian Hallamore, formerly an HR Executive with Imperial Oil. This week, Jackie and Brian discuss what employers and key managers should be doing to help remaining staff after a termination.
For earlier parts of this series click HERE.
Jackie Rafter: A key question at this point is why is a proper transition important at all?
Brian Hallamore: As a starting point, let’s define transition. From the work of William Bridges, it is a process of change that has the following order:
End -> Transition/Change -> Beginning
I’d suggest looking at this from two perspectives – the negatives of handling transition poorly, and the positives of handling it well.
Taking the first point, it would seem obvious that if you handle anything poorly, the outcomes will be negative unless you are amazingly lucky. So let’s acknowledge at the outset that no one is trying to deliberately handle transition poorly. The root cause of poor transition is that you can’t see it or touch it, so it is easy to not recognize it as a process requiring attention. You get caught up in the activities that need to be done, and don’t consider what happens if they are out of order or you miss something important.
The focus of most staff reductions is on changing organization structures, reducing head count and stopping the activities that can be stopped that cost a lot of money. All of the attention goes to these items, and they are important. A transition process can therefore be “under the radar” and it simply doesn’t get planned.
Rafter: What are the implications of an unplanned process?
Hallamore: There are several. First, management will have under-communicated the rationale for staff reductions and the organization’s future (because it is impossible to over-communicate during times of staff reductions). It means the organization could use a process designed for another purpose (involuntary departures) and apply it to staff reductions that are caused by a lack of work.
It can also mean that employees will be confused by mixed messaging from different managers since reductions will have occurred without sufficient thought to how the “new” organization will work. Without well thought out rationale, cynicism and black humor will prevail in the workplace.
For those who have been separated (because they have been through a process designed to separate poor performers) it means they are likely to feel that their separation was their fault. This complicates their ability to move on to their next position. It has implications back into the organization because generally former colleagues do stay in touch, so remaining employees will hear how their friends are struggling with how they were treated. Management owns what has happened and will be held responsible for what has occurred for years afterwards.
Another factor that can contribute to underestimating the transition process is a view that “we’ve been telling people that there could be reductions, so they shouldn’t be surprised”. No matter how much employees may be anticipating reductions, the fact that they are the ones being asked to leave will be a shock, and this must be taken into account.
The result of this is that all employees – those who stay and those who leave – do not get closure. For those no longer employed, it can cause them to continue to focus primarily on their former employer in a negative way and prevent them from focusing on their job search and potential new employer. This can be very destructive and last for many years. For those remaining, they are likely to feel “lost”, without either an anchor or a target. They can dwell on the positives of “before” and wallow in feeling badly and distrustful of efforts to move forward. This can result in reduced productivity and in behavior that is counter to improving the organization.
Rafter: What about the flip side – the well-planned transition?
Hallamore: If you plan for a major change, it is more likely to have a better outcome than if you don’t. It is unlikely that everything will go exactly according to plan, but having a plan guides you when unexpected events occur, and allows you to make more considered, thoughtful decisions for the organization and employees (current and former).
Reducing staff is not a simple activity, although it can appear that way to someone who hasn’t had to do it. As well, the reductions are usually coupled with significant changes in organization structure and roles. To the extent that these have been thought through, the future becomes clearer earlier to those who remain, and it is easier for them to engage. If an organization understands the simple model, it can plan to insure there is an “end” and people achieve closure. For those remaining, it enables them to now listen to what changes are in store in a more positive way, and to be more supportive. Once this has been established, employees are in a position to take actions to move forward, to in essence begin again.
Rafter: Okay, that all makes sense in theory, but how does an organization do this?
Hallamore: Each organization will need to figure this out for itself, because what works for one will not necessarily work for another. However, in concept, the organization needs to recognize both what was accomplished prior to the reductions as well as recognize what the downsides were, so there is an acknowledgment of the good things that were done as well as an understanding that things were far short of ideal at that point.
Then the organization needs to work hard to provide as much certainty as quickly as possible. This will be iterative because not everything will be crystal clear immediately, but again a commitment to do this, matched by corresponding actions, makes a big difference. While doing this, it is important to stay focused on the desired end state and continue to communicate what that is and how the organization is making progress towards it. Doing all of this will help considerably, but no one should expect that doing this will result in everything being sweetness and light. There will be negative things occurring and issues to deal with, but by planning for them and addressing them proactively, the organization and its employees will be in a much better place than otherwise.
Rafter: And what about for individuals?
Hallamore: For those who have had to leave the organization, it is really the same process for them as individuals – they need to feel that their work had value, and that they personally still have value. They need to look at their move to a new job or career as real work that needs to receive all of their focus so they can gain clarity quickly about next steps and what and where their desired end state is. Again, it is not easy for the individual, any more than it is for the organization, and it will have many bumps, but taking the time to work on and develop a personal plan will pay off with better outcomes.
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