But where were the Corporate Grief Counselors?

So at last the official announcement was made concerning the sale of the division. I’ll have to hand to the corporate chieftains. It was sure kept a state secret over the last three months. Everyone was taken by surprise. The timing could not have been worse. On the afternoon of the Friday before the Christmas break, those of us stationed at the divisional headquarters’ site were asked to join in meetings that had been scheduled in the conference room. Now one has to understand (if one can) that due to the company’s goofy, complex and confusing organizational structure, employees of our division are not the only people who dwell in our building’s offices. There are a multitude of other divisions’ and even a few of the corporate headquarters’ employees housed there as well. By the same token, many of our division’s employees and managers are based at other geographic locations. It’s all part of this highly matrixed nightmare.

I’ve been involved in certain aspects of the sale for some time and so I was least somewhat prepared. The others weren’t as lucky. To top it all off, there were a number of employees on the payrolls of other divisions who had also been earmarked as part of the sale. Their “matrixed” support of certain functions of our division had made them vulnerable to the transaction as well. Upon hearing the news, they were the most shocked and confused of all.

I’d been busy most of the morning and afternoon and happened in on one of the last scheduled meetings of the day. These were clerical folks. There were eight of them present for the presentation that was remotely broadcast by the division’s General Manager. He was stationed at another geographic location. Many of the meeting’s participants had neither met nor even seen the General Manager beforehand. Welcome to twenty-first century management! Ah, the wonders of modern technology! Along with the affected employees were five – that’s correct five managers from the Human Resources Department, none of whom were connected to our division They were ostensibly present to provide support – whatever that meant. Also present were a few functional managers to whom these affected employees reported – at least on a dotted line basis.

The GM apologized for the timing of the announcement. He explained that the agreement had just been signed and that the transaction would be effective at year-end. Due to the impending holidays and vacation schedules, it was felt that the affected employees should receive a “heads up” notice in advance of both corporations’ press releases announcing the takeover. That was a considerate gesture. He then went into an excruciating detailed explanation of the sale. The GM sounded like he was making a presentation to sophisticated investors or the board of directors. He voiced his feelings of excitement about the new opportunities for the customers as well as both companies involved in the deal. I do not believe that the attention to his words by any of the affected employees lasted past his first sentence. While the GM professed his feelings of “excitement” about the takeover, it was obvious from the expressions on the faces of the affected that they were feeling profound “anxiety” and “terror”. He signed off by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. That was another nice gesture.

You could have heard a pin drop on the carpet in the conference room until one of the HR Managers spoke up. She was obviously the spokesperson for the HR group and prefaced her remarks by stating that there was no detailed information available regarding anything involving the status of the affected employees. All of that would be communicated after January 1st. She then asked if there were any questions. Duh!!! Of course there were questions from the shocked and anxious employees. Every question ranging from continuation of benefits, to severance pay was thrown at the five HR managers. The HR spokesperson answered all queries by reiterating that no other information was available. She would then end each exchange by asking if there were any more questions. This prompted round after round all ending on the same note. It began to sound like one of those silly post disaster television news conferences where reporters keep asking the same questions over and over again only to receive the same answers. I finally wanted to gag the HR spokesperson to get her to shut up. This was really stirring up the eight affected employees. To make matters worse, the unaffected functional managers began having “business as usual” discussions between each other and several affected employees. How mindful of the affected employee’s state of mind after hearing the news. You could feel the tension levels rise during these exchanges.

I turned to one of the other HR managers who happened to be seated next to me. She was in charge of corporate training. I asked her why she was in attendance there. She stated that due to the obvious traumatic reaction that the announcement would cause, corporate headquarters had pressed all HR management into service. I then asked her specifically about her role was in the meeting. “I’ve been through these things several times with other companies,” she answered. “Look at these people’s faces,” I whispered, “Are you a grief counselor?” She thought that the question was humorous. Meeting adjourned.

It’s times like these that reinforce my cynical philosophy about today’s corporations. I’ll give the leadership those 20 degrees for at least having good intentions. They did not want the affected employees to learn about the transaction from the press releases. As usual though, I would have conducted the meetings at least 160 degrees differently:

· I realize that the General Manager had memorized his presentation and had probably delivered it 30 or 40 times over the previous days or even weeks but sometimes one has to tailor a message to one’s audience. Sophisticated executives and investment bankers are not the same as employees whose first reaction is fear and anxiety about the prospects for losing their livelihoods. A good leader should understand that.

· Having a “team” of diverse HR managers present during such a traumatic meeting, particularly when they have nothing to say, may make company officials “feel” good about themselves but they should reflect on the point that the meetings are NOT about their feelings but rather the feelings of the affected employees. This is a huge global corporation with a lot of resources. Why not have some real HR professionals present who know how to deal with these issues. Trainers and talent managers? I don’t think so.

· If a designated spokesperson really has no information to offer, stop the tired practice of soliciting questions. I realize that this is almost a reflex action learned in public speaking seminars or from the media but it only serves to prolong the agony.

· Changing the subject or interjecting “business as usual” banter by those who are unaffected by the news sets up an instant “us versus them” mindset and trivializes the effect of the event. “It’s easy for you to talk about ‘business as usual.’ You’re not affected!”

Don’t get me wrong. I am most definitely NOT some bleeding heart. I fully recognize that this whole “deal” is about transacting hundreds of millions of dollars. I am a part of the management group that helped make it happen and I am part of the sale as well. I also appreciate the effort made by the company to at least give the affected employees some warning before the press releases were published. But there is more than just cash, assets and market channels being traded here. There are employees with valuable knowledge and experience as well. Let’s try to keep that in mind.

Perhaps during the coming weeks we’ll learn if the welcome is as ill planned and antiseptic as the sendoff.

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