A voluntary redundancy (VR) program can be an important strategy for managing a reduction in workforce. There are pros and cons of VR programs compared to forced redundancies, both for the employer and employee. Each organisation needs to carefully weigh up the factors for their own unique situation and decide which approach will work best for them. For organisations who have chosen to implement a VR process, this article discusses the range of reactions you may expect from employees, and how you can best support them through the process.
Both forced and voluntary redundancies impact on people’s psychological wellbeing, regardless of whether they are directly impacted or not. Emotions will run high ranging from sadness, anger or fear through to euphoria. There are, however, significant differences in how employees may respond to voluntary vs involuntary redundancy programs, primarily stemming from the fact that VR’s offer employees a choice.
From David Rock’s work around the well-known SCARF model, and other social neuroscience research, we know that our brain’s response to a social threat is similar to how it responds if our physical safety is threatened. This can help to explain why some social situations, like being embarrassed in public or being excluded from a social gathering for example, can feel so terrible. Importantly, the sources of threat identified in the SCARF model can also help us to understand what is happening during a VR process to make employees feel threatened and what you can do to support them during these times.
The five sources of threat identified in the SCARF model are:
- Status – our relative importance to others
- Certainty – our ability to predict the future
- Autonomy – our sense of control over events
- Relatedness – how safe we feel with others
- Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.
Any redundancy process can trigger the full gamut of social threats. Two threats which can play out differently depending on whether the redundancies are forced or voluntary are Certainty and Autonomy. Both types of redundancies create uncertainty about the future, however the types and levels of uncertainty differ. Forced redundancies hit autonomy like a sledgehammer, whereas VR’s give people some sense of control over their destiny.
It is true that when a VR program is announced, the threat to certainty will likely be at the forefront of people’s minds. In some cases though, there may have been rumours of redundancies and an already high level of uncertainty leading up to this point. For these people, announcing a VR may actually reduce uncertainty, at least initially. For others, the VR announcement may suddenly throw them into worry about what is going to happen next and how they can be certain they have made the right decision.
Autonomy can counter the threat of uncertainty, and a VR program by its very nature provides autonomy and gives an individual control of this important decision about their future. Having the ability to make this choice can be very protective for some people. For others, being offered a choice, and such as big one, can be daunting, and raise anxiety and stress levels significantly.
What this means is that the VR process can be a lifeline for some people and an additional source of stress for others, and sometimes both. In short, you can expect to see a wide variety of reactions and responses to the announcement of a VR, even from the same person.
So, how can you help?
- Be patient as people grapple with uncertainty. There will be layers of uncertainty for people and they may cycle between feeling OK and not OK.
- Provide certainty in other areas. Uncertainty in one area can be offset by providing certainty in other areas. Clear and frequent communication about what is known can be very helpful.
- Support and encourage agency. Encourage people to make their own choices even if you feel you have a stake in that choice. Managers are naturally concerned about what will happen if their best people leave, however the best thing you can do for your people is let them make their own choice.
- Help people identify and test assumptions they're making. Often the assumptions we make are based on the worst-case scenarios. We look at the worst case for option A (“It will take too long to get another job…. I’ll run out of money…. I’ll have to sell my house, etc), and Option B (“I’ll stay and I’ll hate it… I’ll inherit everybody’s workload… “they will make me redundant anyway” etc”). Helping people think through the most likely scenarios for each choice, and then comparing these, can much more be helpful and more realistic.
- Ask about a time in the past when they have faced a situation with a similar level of uncertainty. The act of telling a story about how they managed uncertainty previously will remind people that they have the resources to do this again.
- Allow expression of emotions, concerns and doubts. Neuroscience tells us that suppressed emotions grow stronger. Allow people to express their emotions, and try hard to just listen rather than attempt to fix the problem. It is important to acknowledge, validate, and normalise the expression of emotions.
- Provide professional support throughout and after the process. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are an excellent resource for employees and managers.
- Provide independent support to employees to help them with the career decision making process. This can be through (CDAA-accredited) career coaches who have no vested interest in the decision.
- If possible, let employees know that they will be offered career transition support (outplacement) if they leave, reducing their uncertainly about what will happen next if they choose to exit the organisation.
We offer a 1-hour masterclass for leaders on preparing for voluntary or forced redundancy processes, plus a wide range of support programs.
 The SCARF Model was developed in 2008 by David Rock, in his paper "SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others." SCARF stands for the five key "domains" that influence our behavior in social situations