Retrenchments are in fact ‘everybody’s business’ Like the victims and survivors of retrenchments, the retrenchment process also negatively affects the implementers. Retrenching others is professionally demanding and leads to, amongst others, role overload, a search for meaning, social and organisational isolation, a decline in personal well-being, and decreased family functioning. These experiences are discussed in more detail later. It follows then that implementers are worthy of empathetic scrutiny because of the negative effects on both their well-being and functioning within the organisation, which manifest as a result of implementing the retrenchment. This article is the result of a survey conducted amongst South African managers and HR professionals, in order to determine the common experiences of their role in the retrenchment process.
By another name Sharing bad news with employees is rarely painless, and implementers are also often stereotypically referred to as the ‘executioner’, ‘terminator’, ‘axe man’, ‘lynch lady’ or ‘hit man’, and may experience ‘terminator guilt’. These managers can become the scapegoats for a top management decision, and can also become caught between their responsibilities to their company and to their employees.
For whom the bell tolls Retrenching staff members who may be long-time acquaintances or friends is likely to be a very painful process, leaving an indelible imprint on the implementer. Very few have exposure in terms of the emotional reactions likely from the victims of retrenchment, and a negligible portion experience training or coaching on preparing them to handle the dynamics of their own emotions. Organisations also tend to prepare implementers to follow legal procedures as per Section 189 and 189A of the Labour Relations Act, 66 of 1995 (as amended), by ‘cueing’ them on ‘what not to say’.
On being tasked with the implementer role, most managers experience a clear, crisp mandate to get on with the job and, with larger scale retrenchments, are rigorously directed to ensure that retrenchment targets have been achieved. Commonly implementers try to minimise their discomfort by holding very short, curt retrenchment meetings with affected staff members. On the positive side some implementers know that their role in handling retrenchments successfully is directly related to the future of the company and that of the survivors; and they can visualise opportunities for the victims that are potentially bigger and more buoyant than their current reality.
Coming to terms with their role Traditionally in management development programmes (MDPs) managers are trained to see their role as providing employment and developing people, but retrenchment demands actions to the contrary. ‘Novice’ implementers, like Ntombi who works for a security company, are known to comment, ‘Nothing in my training prepared me for this’. * (* In the interests of confidentiality, all names of individuals referred to in the article have been changed )
It is realistic to expect future MDP processes to also coach implementers on retrenching employees humanely and compassionately, and to handle the felt and expressed emotions (theirs and their employees).
‘Seasoned’ implementers suggest that the issue is more about balancing management and union needs; seeing both sides and representing both interests. Simultaneously, they realise that regardless of their opinions and feelings, they have no choice but to do this task as refusal would put their own positions at risk: ‘I prefer not to think about it,’ says Riaan, who works for a large banking institution. Neither the emotional distress nor the receipt of threats leads them to consider quitting their jobs, despite repeated requests from their families. ‘I wanted to prove that I can handle the situation – you know be one of the boys. I am a girl, after all … I was rewarded with a promotion to HR director – the first female in this company to make it to the top’, says Martine, HR director at a large packaging manufacturing plant. Others in her position feel unappreciated despite their work and that they are being ‘used’ by top management to ‘do their dirty work’; a few do end up resigning.