Dismissal: a slap in the face?

In a recent article in De Standaard, Annick Ruyts, an employee at VRT, expressed dissatisfaction with the way her dismissal unfolded during the latest organizational restructuring. Abrupt and strictly business like, lacking the anticipated humane touch in both communication and farewell gestures.

How would you yourself like to be fired? Have you ever thought about that? How about incorporating this aspect into the hiring process or including it in the employment contract? Is your preference for a brief and stoic exit, or would you appreciate having ample time to bid farewell and express your emotions?

We are not talking about the individual dismissal here which can be experienced as ‘liberating’ if the fit with the company or the job is lacking or if the employee-employer relationship is not working out and it is simply best to part ways. We focus on multiple or collective dismissals where several employees are suddenly asked to leave their organisation for economic reasons.

That is where the words dismissal and redundancy can have real, tangible meaning for those involved. The reactions do not lie. You only have to read the headlines on some restructurings: a “sledgehammer blow”, a “slap in the face”, a true “battlefield” for staff…

But it doesn’t have to be that way!

When dealing with redundancies, you have every interest in handling redundancy interviews professionally and qualitatively, not as an afterthought that your company has to endure.

It not only benefits your company’s reputation. The acclaimed ‘Reputation Institute’ has been scientifically researching elements that influence an organisation’s reputation for more than 20 years. Their conclusion? Emotional attributes or characteristics are more important than rational elements.

A collective expression of dissatisfaction from a hundred individuals recounting their negative dismissal experiences carries significant weight, particularly within the vicinity of their company’s location. The impact may extend beyond local boundaries, evident in the widespread national media coverage surrounding Annick Ruyts’ book Indeed, this holds true even when the experiences are positive. Your company’s social reputation is built not only when hiring employees but also when they leave, if it comes to that.

But your organisation’s internal reputation counts too. How do you get your people engaged again if the human experience surrounding the round of dismissals among colleagues is downright negative? How do you retain the good elements who will be the first to leave the ship if they experience certain human values being compromised?

The ideal dismissal does not exist.  As a golden rule, we advise you to view dismissal interviews not only as a conversation to end a relationship (the solution for the company) but also as a moment that should enable the employee to start something new later (the solution for the employee). Planting seeds that can germinate later.

Even if you think it is far too early to talk about the future at that point, you can still suggest avenues that can help the employee work on his or her own future again, step by step, in the coming weeks. For example, by dwelling on the practical help that an outplacement counselling service or an employment unit can offer.

There are also three ‘dimensions’ that can help you along the way to succeed in your strategic exercise: SPACE, TIME and CLARITY.

Giving SPACE to vent, to listen, to understand.

The impact of a collective dismissal frequently lands on unyielding ground. Employees often feel ‘caught out’. Self-esteem and confidence in the organisation are affected. Frustration, anger, emotionality are often vented at home. Also, with colleagues. It is to the credit of managers if they give employees space to express their feelings. With respect for everyone. In a ‘safe’ environment.

Provide TIME to go through the ‘grieving process’ in its entirety.

The concept of time is subjective in this context. Certain individuals immediately dive into their next endeavors upon resigning, wasting no time between the announcement and their actual departure. Others need time, sometimes a lot of time. Talking, venting helps with this. But at each person’s pace. A manager knows his people. It is his/her job to do so. Don’t leave that to HR alone.

CLARITY is a steady rock.

When all assurances dissipate, our brains often start ‘freewheeling’, no longer listening, no longer wanting to understand. Make sure you have scripts for all managers who will soon have to hold dismissal interviews, in collaboration with HR.

A script explains how best to approach the conversation, what to do in case of emotion, anger, brutal reactions. What to give in writing, in it included the ‘seeds’ that might germinate later.