From bitter personal experience, I could equally have called this article, "how not to react when a colleague is made redundant". In my first ever ’proper’ job as a graduate I sat on a bank of desks with several established colleagues who had been long serving employees of the business I had joined. On one memorable day, two of these colleagues were absent from their desks for a good chunk of the morning. An email circulated shortly afterwards, and we were told that their roles had been removed due to restructuring and they were in consultation regarding potential redundancy.
It was my first experience of such a thing, and when they returned to their desks somewhat later, despite the flurry of people flocking round their area to sympathise and show support, I was completely rooted to my seat, without the faintest idea of what an appropriate reaction could possibly be. I sat. Time seemed to stop still. My boss, sitting opposite me, kicked me, then - as I didn’t take the hint - emailed me: ’Go and say you’re sorry for their news’. I flushed. Mortified, I went over and mumbled something. And so I learned - how to react when a colleague is made redundant.
OK, you feel awkward. So does your colleague. No matter how naturally empathetic you may be, this is a new scenario and it is difficult to balance feelings of personal concern and sympathy with professional respect and hierarchy, particularly if the colleague concerned is more senior or experienced than you are. The worst possible choice, as in my personal experience above, is to allow the awkward silence to go on for any longer than absolutely necessary. There is no ’right’ thing to say, so just say something - you will be forgiven for struggling for the correct words more readily than you will be for maintaining what might look like an aloof distance. Be sincere, and you can’t go far wrong.
Having found a way to acknowledge what’s happened - listen. Don’t fill silence with your own thoughts on the matter. Don’t try to offer solace or advice. Saying "it’ll be OK" will sound hollow, and getting fired up ("they can’t do this to you!") is even worse. Don’t forget, you will be seeing the change curve in action, and your colleague is likely to move through different emotions, from shock and anger towards acceptance and a desire to find a way forward. Allow your colleague the space to talk if they want it. Reasoning and finding solutions can come later.
Name the emotion you see.
As you see the change curve playing through, you may be able to help your colleague by identifying the emotions you see. Doing so validates the way they are feeling - in the circumstance it is OK to be somewhat angry or disappointed, and suppressing that emotion is far more damaging for the long term than embracing and expressing it. That said, some people may choose to let out the emotions in private or in the company of family - don’t prod them too hard. Remember this is their issue, they choose how to deal with it.
Survivor syndrome, the feeling of ill-defined guilt at escaping redundancy, can be a real issue in organisations that restructure. In more complex organisational development work, where redundancies are decided using pooling and selection across a broad section of the workforce, this can be an even bigger problem. If you notice this in yourself or others, it is worth taking time to think through and explore the emotions. Rationalise them and face them properly, rather than tucking the nagging feeling away at the back of your mind to reappear later.
Take constructive steps to help yourself and any colleagues who have been made redundant, for example by helping with making introductions or recommendations to any connections or colleagues in other businesses who might be recruiting. Networking beyond redundancy means you can keep up both social and professional relationships with those who leave - and most industries are such ’small worlds’, it is well worth maintaining the relationships.
Workplaces in the grip of reorganisation or other redundancy programmes can be unsettled and difficult environments in which to work. By thinking about your reaction to others and showing empathy to those most caught up in change, you can contribute to both your own and others’ well being at a difficult time.