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HR's Role in an Effective Downsizing

November 1, 1993
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Related Topics: Downsizing, Featured Article
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Experts say that there are a few basic steps that HR professionals can take to make a downsizing work. These steps include:

  1. Communicate:
    There's no such thing as too much communication during a downsizing. "The work force almost has an insatiable appetite for news and information," says Mitchell Marks, director of Delta Consulting Group in New York City. Employers who fail to keep major constituents informed of their plans risk alienating groups critical to the future of the organizations, writes Helen Axel, author of The Conference Board's HR Executive Review: Downsizing, a 1993 report that thoroughly examined the issue.
  2. Educate:
    A work force has to learn that restructuring a company isn't a single event, says Bob Marshall, president of The Marshall Group, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based consulting firm. "There's never going to be an all-clear. Today, it's an ongoing process that involves virtually everyone."
  3. Collect data:
    No matter how a company goes about downsizing, HR can mitigate problems and assist top management by collecting data to show that there may or may not be a consensus. "Fractured visions lead to battles over resources," says Marks. "You wind up with managers protecting their own fiefdoms and losing sight of the 'bigger picture.' "
  4. Provide visible and accessible leadership:
    Nobody is more suited to lead a downsizing effort and communicate the message than the CEO and top executives. Short of that, top HR personnel should make themselves available to answer questions and take some of the heat. During a downsizing, there's an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge, as well as feelings of anger, fear and uncertainty. "If you don't provide a feeling of leadership, productivity and morale are going to become abysmal," says Bill Ryan, vice president of human resources for Liberty Corner, New Jersey-based Sea-Land Service.
  5. Ensure equity and fairness:
    The equal application of rules is mandatory in an era of litigation, says Joe Meissner, president of Power Marketing, a San Francisco-based outplacement firm. Moreover, perceptions do count. If executives are emerging from a downsizing unscathed while line workers are being laid off, it's going to have a damaging affect on morale and productivity.
  6. Maintain a managed approach:
    "Own up to the fact there will be a significant impact on the workplace," says Marks. Human resources needs someone who is responsible for keeping an eye on things, whether it's conducting a survey to gauge employee response or making sure management is doing things according to the criteria it has set down. "Perceptions are just as important as reality. What the work force is thinking is as real as what's actually happening," says Marks

Personnel Journal, November 1993, Vol. 72, No.11 p. 68.

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