Faculty Advisor: Workplace Safety During Staffing Adjustments

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Q. My company has had several reductions in force over the past few months and plans to make significant announcements over the next few weeks and months.  Employees are nervous, rumors are rampant and there is an air of uncertainty all around.  As the senior security executive, what proactive measures should I take to help weather the inevitable storm when people who have worked here for many years learn that they will no longer have a job?  How can we ease the tension and give these employees some hope of moving forward?

Workforce adjustments bring about change in the lives of employees.  While most will be able to cope with the change, some may not.  What will the stress of losing this job mean to the employee, and what reactions can be expected? How will those reactions affect the rest of the workforce?  You must recognize and respond effectively to the kinds of behavior that raise concerns about the well-being of employees and the safety and security of the workplace.

Understand that the situation will be debilitating for some (at least initially), from a financial standpoint and in terms of self-identity, social network and self-esteem.  Some impacted employees may become defensive and/or challenging. 

Watch for people who may need special attention, such as employees who have a history of acting out.  Identify potentially aggressive individuals in advance.  Impulsive individuals may become verbally abusive or physically assaultive at the moment they are given notice.  Managers should have an exit route and backup available if needed. 

On the other hand, a compulsive reaction may occur after obsessive forethought and planning.  Compulsive individuals may eventually take revenge in a more lethal way. Watch for warning signs, such as disruptive, threatening, belligerent, or confrontational behavior.  Some may become depressed, dejected, uncooperative, or moody. 

When meeting with affected employees, managers should stay calm, stick to facts, and not get caught up in emotion or allow the point of the meeting to be sidetracked.   Monitor your nonverbal communication and be aware of body language (both yours and the employee’s), personal space, and how you say what you say. Schedule the meeting as early in the week as possible, giving the affected employee an opportunity to start to contact other potential employers, rather than brood over the weekend.

Train managers to respect the dignity and privacy of the employee and listen carefully and respond appropriately.  Minimize stress and hassles as much as possible. Typically, troubled employees can benefit greatly from the support services of an Employee Assistance Provider.  Offer as much continuing support as feasible in the form of severance, COBRA, or outplacement, and have this information in writing to give to the employee during the termination meeting. 

Finally, understand that organizational changes or layoffs may also involve other people, such as spouses, family members, friends and acquaintances, so there may be more than just the employee’s problems or concerns to consider.

Answer provided by Rosalind Jackson, retired Media and Public Relations Manager for the Security Executive Council. Ms. Jackson has been involved with workplace violence prevention and employee safety for over 20 years.

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