In today’s “lean and mean” corporate environment, restructuring or downsizing have become a necessary and indispensable part of business language.
The job for life is fast becoming a thing of the past — the retrenchment option is necessary for business survival through its potential to cut costs and improve viability, efficiency and well-being of organisations. Since retrenchment is a “no fault dismissal”, our law requires the decision to retrench to be based on bona fide economic rationale.
Section 12C(11)(a)(i) of the Labour Act (Chapter 28:01) provides that “retrenchment of employees should be avoided so far as possible . . .”. Section 12C (11)(a)(ii) further provides that “. . . the consequences of retrenchment to employees should be mitigated so far as possible”, including giving consideration to prospects of retrenchees securing alternative employment elsewhere.
It is crucial to realise that the issue of retrenchment has an immense emotional impact on employees at all levels in an organisation.
If the retrenchment process is managed poorly, discontent and demotivation are likely to spread like a virus through the organisation, affecting both those employees losing their jobs as well as those remaining.
Losing one’s job is potentially devastating. The “victim” can experience shock and disbelief. They are stunned. It is as if their world has come to an end.
They feel outraged at being let go after being a loyal and faithful employee for so many years. They are disappointed, shocked, angry, upset and resentful. They tell themselves “it can’t be real” or ask themselves “why has this happened to me?”
Their dream and plans for the future are shattered.
A sense of guilt and powerlessness engulfs them. The prospect of being without a steady income can be frightening and humiliating.
A couple of years ago, a former employee of a textile company outside Harare committed suicide after he was “dumped” by his employer.
Then there is what is termed the “survivors’ syndrome”. Those employees left behind feel as stressed as those who were let go. They feel insecure and this is exacerbated by the guilt of being spared while their co-workers were axed.
They are often a neglected and forgotten lot who are inevitably forced to do more with less. After a retrenchment exercise, it is always difficult to tell who is less fortunate — those employees who have had to leave or the ones who are left behind — commonly referred to as “survivors” or the “working wounded”.
The fear of future retrenchment makes the “survivors” adopt an ambivalent attitude towards management.
The consequences of an organisation’s decision to retrench can be disastrous if not proactively and responsibly managed.
Ill-feeling associated with job loss may precipitate lowered productivity levels, turf battles, poor morale, heightened interpersonal conflict, poor time management, increased absenteeism, cynicism about the organisation’s future and even incidents of sabotage.
This may apply both to the discharged employees and those who remain.
The cost to the organisation may not be measurable in dollars and cents, but may manifest in loss of reputation and failure to attract talented employees from the open job market, never mind the glossy vision, mission and value statements.
In fact, handled ineptly, costs of retrenchment will far outstrip the savings you expected to gain from reduction in staff.
With so many retrenchments being predicted, what should business leaders do?
In the war for talent, it simply does not make business sense to excommunicate people who no longer fit the business today.
It is time business offers support to retrenched staff beyond the traditional retrenchment package. In developed countries, they term it outplacement.
When retrenching workers, progressive employers arrange for their employees to receive psychological support to come to terms with the situation as well as career advice and assistance in securing alternative employment elsewhere.
This will be at the employer’s expense. Providing this support also sends a strong message that you are a fair and responsible employer, thus mitigating the risk of losing talented people from the organisation.
Remaining employees, seeing that their former co-workers are being taken care of, trust that they will be treated fairly as well.
Above all, management is spared from potentially crippling litigation costs when former employees feel they were unfairly treated or “kicked over the wall”. The collorary is where individuals feel they have been treated fairly and given career transition support, the chances of legal action are often significantly reduced.
Outplacement involves training of retrenchees on the art of résumé writing, interviewing, networking and job search techniques, which make all the difference in the career transition.
An external consultant is usually hired to do this. This is the best parting gift any organisation can give to its employees.
It is true the job market of yesteryear was fairly healthy. Many folks have never written a résumé and have no clue as to how to look for a job.
It is also possible that some have never been interviewed as they were referred by friends and relatives and were hired without much vetting.
Needless to say, they are nervous about finding new jobs. They are right. The job market at present is extremely tough.
However, it has been researched and found out those who have benefited from outplacement have brighter chances of finding a new job than those who have not.
High-quality outplacement is therefore a worthwhile investment — in relations with former employees, in the trust of current employees, in the reputation of the company. Retrenchments must be managed sensitively.
It is better to have retrenched employees as allies and friends and even potential re-employment candidates in the future if circumstances change.
As much as employers hope that terminations can be resolved amicably by providing an appropriate package, this is not always the case.
People still need to be treated as if they are still valued and handled in as humane a way as possible.
They never forget the way they are treated when they were made redundant and neither do their friends and colleagues who remain behind.
The subject of outplacement is novel in Zimbabwe. Is it not high time business embraces it?
For those employees who have been retrenched or face the prospect of retrenchment, here is a tip: There is no such thing as a secure job today.
The deal is no longer a job for life in return for loyalty.
Manage your own career. Create career portfolios and continuously add on to your skills and knowledge.
The myopic “not in my job description” mentality has no place in the present environment. You must be able to hit the ground running in the event of job loss. Here is another tip: Leave on good terms.
You may be livid that you were targeted for retrenched but make sure to part ways amicably with your co-workers and even the manager who had to let you go.
Any of these people could potentially steer you to a future employment opportunity.
Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on email: firstname.lastname@example.org