By | Abhijit Bhaduri |Keynote speaker, Author and Columnist
I recently met with the HR team of a company that had been in the news. The organization is synonymous with innovation. Business schools have taught students to model their thinking along the lines of this organization. The company’s decision to reduce its workforce was painful but inevitable. It was shutting down a division and had to lay off almost 40 members from its R&D Unit. The HR team wanted to know if the exit could be designed to be a positive experience. “Letting go of a colleague is one of the toughest parts of being a HR professional,” explained the CHRO. “Can we redesign the experience?”
While it’s common for my clients to want to design a great candidate experience or even a way to retain their high potential talent, very few think of exiting employees with the same degree of care and concern that this company had just shown.
Many leaders react indifferently when colleagues are let go. Why be concerned with someone who is no longer an employee?
In the case of this already highly regarded company, the end goal of the design challenge was to turn departing employees into brand ambassadors by treating them with respect, care, and dignity. “It is unfortunate that we have to part ways, but we will do everything possible to help them go with their head held high.”
This thinking is refreshing because it applies to internal customers—employees—the same considerations often given to external customers. When organizations map their customers’ journey, they understand that the customer experience is shaped by a frictionless buying experience. But, making returns easy is an even more important part of the customer experience. Often, a small amount deducted from the refund could leave the customer sour, and the smartest companies realize that the complete experience is what matters if they wish to retain customers and corporate reputation. The same is true for an organization’s internal customers.
“Organizations who wish to be viewed as employers of choice provide outstanding experiences at every stage of the employee life cycle—from onboarding through exit,” says Joel Paul, General Manager, Randstad RiseSmart. “Taking care of employees with compassionate outplacement has a direct impact on employer brand, and thus a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent.”
Employees are the brand ambassadors
While most organizations spend time trying to design a great candidate experience or even a great employee experience, the exit experience remains the most neglected. A happy customer’s endorsement can build trust even among the most cynical. The employee’s opinion on a site like Glassdoor can sway the employer brand perception.
According to Gallup, “Employees who have a positive exit experience are 2.9 times more likely to recommend their organization to others than those who have negative or neutral experiences.”
Massive impact on brand
From automobiles to retail, there are headlines everywhere about layoffs. The makers of the iconic Parle biscuits hinted they might lay off up to 10,000 workers. Automobile manufacturers have let go of almost 15,000 employees between June and August of 2019. Maruti Suzuki laid off 3,000 temporary workers, while Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) has eliminated 1,500 temporary positions since April 1, 2019.
From telecom to banking and retail, no sector seems to be immune from job cuts. Even in IT and ITES, layoffs seem imminent. Cognizant is likely to dismiss more than 800 employees in healthcare and life sciences.
As the business landscape becomes more volatile and uncertain, layoffs are inevitable. In this environment, now is the time to reimagine how employers can strive to differentiate themselves as employers of choice by going beyond the transaction of letting go of employees and, instead, doing the right thing. While no organization can guarantee lifetime employment, these separations, when done improperly, erode the employer brand, which negatively affects a company’s ability to hire the best people and remain competitive. It impacts the morale of remaining employees and can damage productivity. They come in to work every day wondering if they are next in line to be laid off. Even when their leaders assure them that the last of the layoffs is over, people can become more cynical and untrusting. The pain can extend outwardly, as news of layoffs leads customers to wonder how delivery deadlines and quality norms will be compromised.
There is a better alternative.
Redesign the exit experience
The five stages of Design Thinking, according to Stanford’s d.school, are empathize, define (the problem), ideate, prototype, and test. Most organizations get derailed in the first step ie being able to empathize. There is no doubt that stepping into someone’s shoes is hard.
Designing a new experience begins by understanding the feelings and apprehensions that employees feel when they first learn their jobs are being eliminated. Employers often define the problem as trying to safeguard the company’s interests, which requires making the process as quick and “efficient” as possible. Unfortunately, this “employer-first” approach leaves very little time for employees to come to terms with the enormity of the moment.
While employers like to explain severance packages, employees worry about how to face the prospect of being unemployed. Knowing that one does not have a job is a traumatic moment for most people, and often means dealing with a loss of face, not just for the employee, but also for the family. The prospect of loans and mortgages loom large in the mind of employees. Employees worry about not being able to find a job in a slow market or a recession. Above all, people who are sincere and committed workers think of the decision as unfair.
Empathizing with the employee who is essentially the “consumer” in this scenario is the toughest step of the design challenge. This is where employers can offer outplacement. While career transition services can often look like the lifeboat being offered when the ship is sinking, they should instead be viewed as a ship going to a new destination.
“We have found that when our coaches are able to reach out to employees quickly, to check on their well-being, and then start providing advice, support, and access to job resources, those individuals are likely to rebound more quickly, stay positive, and have good experiences that, in turn, will reflect positively on the employer who had to let them go,” Joel says.
How to use the outplacement firm
Employers partner with an outplacement firm when a layoff is imminent, and some plan ahead by having these companies in place in advance of a layoff, thereby increasing the likelihood of a smooth process.
Outplacement firms should run periodic workshops where people can receive skills assessments to understand their employability. This is akin to a regular health checkup, but for one’s career.
While the presence of an outplacement firm in the office sets the rumor mills on fire—speculation about impact and scope of layoffs often becomes part of the watercooler chat—employees who are being let go can find new opportunities in multiple places. Here are a few:
- Adjacent sectors: While many individuals may immediately think of roles at competing firms, another option that can increase one’s job prospects is to consider adjacent sectors where these same skills are useful. The employer’s suppliers and vendors are often good starting points to explore. Some roles (e.g., sales, QC, manufacturing) are likely available in the current company’s ecosystem.
- New sector, same role: Some roles (e.g., finance, HR, marketing) are employer agnostic and the skills portable. With a little effort, employees can move from one sector to a new sector altogether.
- Generalist to specialist: Switching from being a generalist to a specialist can be enriching. For example, taking a role as a compensation or learning expert after being an HR business partner is a common option. During such a transition, being flexible about the job title, compensation, location, and reporting structure, among other factors, can significantly increase the opportunities available and provide promising long-term career opportunities.
Self-employment: India, China, Brazil, and Indonesia are the four fastest growing markets for gig workers, especially for people with more than 12-15 years of experience. Employers often look to supplement their workforce with freelancers, independent contractors, project-based workers, and temporary or part-time hires. Platforms like Noble House offer gig work for HR professionals. Topcoder advertises project work for software engineers. Tapchief has jobs, consultations, and micro-tasks for a wide range of skills, including UX designers, content writers, eCommerce web developers, email marketing specialists, and more.
Business swings often create opportunities in the same firm that has had to let go of people. This is where having a positive exit experience helps. Only 12 percent of former employees strongly agree that they consider themselves to be a part of their previous organization’s alumni network. Reimagining the exit experience is a good way to improve alumni sentiment and employer brand perception. And leveraging an outplacement firm could be the first step.