Making staff redundant is a difficult and unpleasant part of any manager’s responsibilities, but you really don’t want to hear your employees baying “A poil, à poil!” (“Off with his clothes”!) when holding meetings to discuss job losses. This is what happened to two Air France managers forced to flee what even by French standards was clearly a more than usually fraught consultation meeting by angry workers who literally tore the shirts off their backs. If you have not already seen it, here is a link to the video of the managers escaping over the site fence, to be escorted to safety by the Police, their nerves as tattered as their clothes. One union official told the press (through whether with pride or regret for the opportunity missed is hard to tell) that one of the managers had “narrowly escaped being lynched”.
The managers were taking part in talks about plans for 2,900 job losses when hundreds of workers stormed the Air France headquarters. The measures proposed also included a 10% reduction in its long-haul business, a reduction in the size of the aircraft fleet and an increase in pilots’ working hours. Unsurprisingly, parent company Air France-KLM has said it will take legal action over the protestors “aggregated violence”, though we shall see in due course how far it actually considers this wise in practice in what is already a very incendiary situation. It is reported in particular that the violence was the uncorking of a substantial period of worker frustration with the airline’s management practices.
Air France is not alone in having to deal with angry employees in these situations. In 2014 workers at a French tyre factory threatened with closure took two company executives hostage and promised to hold them until given the splendidly unspecific sum of “enormous amounts of money”. In 2009 the French CEO and Head of Human Resources of a global technology company were held hostage overnight by factory workers furious over what they saw as ungenerous redundancy packages on a site closure.
My colleagues in France suggest that the error here was to hold the meeting on company premises and that a far less vulnerable option is to find a nice public hotel and do it there. In Belgium, not itself immune to direct worker action of this sort, the not wholly unserious advice to managers attending difficult consultation meetings on site is to bring a toothbrush and a good book just in case.
Generally, the responsibility falls to HR departments to pick up the pieces once an announcement has been made and to try and avoid further angering of employees. No-one can completely prevent this sort of thing, but companies can take steps to reduce the risk, both at the time and in advance. Here are a few tips on how to handle large scale redundancy situations whilst keeping the temperature down.
- Be clear on the business case and ready to explain it in reasonable detail. If you treat your employees like children in these things, there is obviously an increased risk that they will behave as such.
- Preparation, communication and understanding is key – HR should be fully informed in advance of an announcement being made so that they are ready for challenging questions by employees and able to answer those questions
- Keep relevant stakeholders informed – be it unions or employee representatives, it is fundamental to a successful process to build strong relationships as they will be key in influencing workforce opinion
- Consider voluntary redundancy as it can help to get unions, employee representatives and employees onside – but beware of the potential pitfalls (e.g. losing your best employees) and always remember that despite this being a “choice” it will still legally constitute a dismissal
- Keep employees informed and carry out meaningful consultation – employees like to feel that they have been listened to, even if it is just to vent their anger, so give them that opportunity. Don’t limit your information and consultation to the bare statutory minimum – it looks pulled out of you, grudging and pre-determined.
- Don’t discriminate – ensure selection criteria are non-discriminatory and don’t make it easier/harder for any particular groups of employees to score highly. Make sure your selection decisions are capable of being objectively justified and not just based on the personal views of managers
- Be flexible – it’s always important to have in place a sensible timetable at the outset of any redundancy process but make sure you build in enough flexibility to allow employees to come back for more meetings where there are issues to discuss, or where extra information is needed
- At risk of sounding cynical, keep some chips up your sleeve so that the collective process is seen to have some purpose and meaning for staff. If you give nothing, staff/union impotence can easily boil over into anger.
Ultimately, it comes down to knowing your employees, being aware of their needs and building their trust – so never provide promises that you may not be able to keep!