If even a percentage of the pundits’ predictions come true, the next few years will yield a bumper crop of global services deals as a result of two vectors: Economic challenges and increasing globalization. And there’s no getting around the impact that shifting work to a third party or another location has on all classes of employees, whether retained or made redundant, whether with skills in demand or those that can be easily automated.
For many corporate change managers, preparing to communicate with employees is the last tick in the box. Few take the time to prepare at the inception of the global services strategic plan, assuming that the responsibility can be offloaded to the HR or internal communications departments.
Yet effective and respectful communication cannot be easily abrogated to another party. Only the managers who understand the scope — the work, employees, internal customers and potential impacts — can effectively swing the ball, and manage the inevitable issues that arise from global services implementation.
The task is hard, but the rules are orthodox. Effective communication results from applying three principles — prepare the right messages, deliver them in a most constructive way and anticipate the fallout.
There is no substitute for preparation, yet as busy managers, we often expect that we can fully “outsource” the communication to the HR department. While HR is effective as a consultant to the change process, and as a source for policy and regulatory advice, the department has no intimacy with the team and the processes they perform.
The first step is to articulate clear, factual and consistent reasons for change, and embed them into the messaging. Simple oblique statements such as “we need to be competitive” can sound like corporate code for increasing executive compensation to affected staff. Even the accounts payable clerk understands corporate imperatives; it is important to lay out the need for change in facts and figures.
The second step is to map all affected stakeholders against the change — determining who gains and who pays from the implementation of global services — and develop a plan to respond to their specific needs. In addition to employees in scope, stakeholders include internal customers such as business units and ancillary departments. Therefore it is critical to develop distinct communication, which anticipate the needs of all classes of stakeholders, focused on “what’s in it for me” tied to consistent key messages and responses.
Once stakeholders are mapped, and messages developed, it is time to develop a roadmap for change. Generally, communication to staff targeted for retention takes priority, but it is equally important to sequence communication to other affected stakeholders in the right order and at the right interval, anticipating issues and allowing time to implement the right response.
It is also critical to enlist the participation of key executive management in the messaging process. Crafting a ‘top down’ message replete with a ‘bottoms up’ response mechanism creates corporate solidarity and underscores the imperative for the change.
Assume nothing’s secret yet communicate in a non-committal fashion. First and foremost, in most companies there is no such thing as a well-kept secret. Employees develop keen radar, alerting them to potential changes in organization or structure, making it easy to piece together the hints that are invariably dropped during the global services evaluation process. And the rumors are never confined to a small group as gossip spreads and staff becomes obsessed with scenario planning. As trying as it is, this is no time for off-the-record communication or winks and nods.
Remember who you are working for. Your company or your staff? As hard as it is, change managers must toe the corporate line when it comes to the decisions regarding business model change. Once decisions are made, debate must cease and personal preferences and emotion must be held in check.
Structure responses based on the needs of affected subgroups. Corporate employees are as diverse as the general population — workers near retirement, recent grads; singles, people supporting families; those with many skills, others who can perform one series of tasks well; those whose companies are surrogate families, and those who see employment as just a job. Designing and then communicating a support structure tailored to the needs of each group helps ease employee transition.
For example, long tenured employees may not have current resume building or interview skills, and need help. Others may not know how to ferret out other opportunities within the corporation. And some staff need help identifying the options open to them.
Develop a vision of the future for those who are retained … and give them a range of incentives to stay. Merely communicating continuity of employment is not enough to retain talent. In this day and age, staff is skeptical about company loyalty, and the right skills are highly portable. While retention bonuses are appropriate and appreciated, those who effectively manage their careers want to know — early on — how their goals mesh with those of a new organization.
Honest, early and often …. These are the hallmarks of good change communication. The communication charge of the change manager is to follow a well-conceived plan and be specific, straightforward and accessible.
Crafting the message is easy on paper, yet when faced with delivering the message, managers tend to throw out the script. As a result, some of the resultant messages undermine the change.
Common messages in the pantheon of poor employee communication include the following:
It hurts me to terminate you. This unbelievably poor message focuses on the discomfort of the messenger, wrongly taking the focus away from the affected employee. The statement clouds the message, personalizing what is a change in corporate strategy.
You’ll find other opportunities quickly. Managers tend to make this representation in an effort to salve their own consciences. In a tight job market, this commentary can hold out false hope, and prevent the affected employee from preparing effectively for the next phase of his career. Help for the employee is warranted; assurances are not.
I feel your pain/I know what it is like. This is the most patronizing and spurious comment managers make, yet is often said in an effort to be sympathetic. Each situation is different; reactions to change vary based on the makeup of the individual.
I tried to save you. The most dangerous of comments, this statement is a plea to separate the manager from the corporate decision, making the company the bad guy. Individual opinions and actions do not matter when then operating model changes; it is the role of the manager to support the corporate decision in all communication.
Most managers think the most difficult part of the process is over after the messages are delivered, yet the greatest trials are yet to come. Delivering performance during the interregnum — that period before transition to the new global services model — tests even the strongest of the managers.
Inevitably after the global services announcement is made, productivity declines precipitously, staff malaise takes over and morale hits the rocks. Savvy managers anticipate this situation, alert their internal customers to a decrease in performance, and develop a plan to keep the proverbial trains running. Often this means structuring performance incentives for employees earmarked to stay permanently or through transition.
As tempting as it is to keep a low profile post announcement, smart managers do not hang up a “gone fishin’” sign on their doors. Rather than hiding from the inevitable backlash, they openly confront the issues that come from both the retained team and those identified for redundancy. Advance preparation of response models that cover the majority of situations is a must.
Prepared managers plan for voluntary attrition. Even with the proffer of retention bonuses, some top performers can be expected to bolt. They may perceive a personal lack of alignment with company vision, have concerns about job security, be flattered by the inevitable approach from the headhunter, or see the change as a call to pursue other career options. In most cases, retention is impossible.
And smart managers anticipate the unexpected, especially coming from the reactions of long-tenured employees. For many, employment is akin to being a member of a family so a discontinuation of or change in employment is tantamount to death or an unexpected divorce. Managers should be prepared for any and all interventions which may range from advising on appropriate interview clothes to grief counseling.
How to cope? Keep an appropriate open door policy, do your homework, deliver with sensitivity and stick to the message.
Deborah is Chief Marketing Officer of a leading offshore business-process outsourcer. Formerly a Partner at two professional services firms, Managing Director at two global banks and a founding executive at a BPO service provider, she has a unique perspective on an industry that she believes will flourish, often in spite of itself.