How redundancies impact HR professionals when they, too, are victims of an organisational restructure

Organisational Change
Paul Slezak

One of my clients in Malaysia is in the process of going through a major transformation. I have been working with them for a few years now and this week, while facilitating a workshop for one of their divisions in Kuala Lumpur, I was asked if I could find time to meet with one of their HR business partners who was struggling as a result of the restructure.

Of course, I made time to meet with her.

I hadn’t met Shyakila before, so I can only imagine that (at least for her, anyway), our encounter may have been a bit embarrassing at first. She hadn’t even sat down when she burst into tears and spent the next few minutes rummaging through her handbag for tissues.

Struggling with the restructure was clearly an understatement.

“I haven’t been able to show my emotions in front of anyone else”, she said, once she had finally composed herself.

Even though we still hadn’t actually introduced ourselves at this point, I felt we were almost beyond the need for pleasantries, so I let her continue.

“You probably wouldn’t even understand exactly what I’m going through”, she continued. “But I’m just thankful that they’ve given me the opportunity to speak with you”.

I hadn’t been briefed on any specifics. I had simply been told that Shyakila would benefit from some time with me.

So here we were.

“I appreciate that restructures happen all the time. It’s part of doing business. At my last company I was even responsible for facilitating a round of redundancies. But this time, I’m really struggling”, she said.

“What’s different this time around?”, I asked.

“Once I’ve conveyed the news of the redundancies to all the impacted team members, my role is being made redundant, too”.

“I’ve known that my name has been on the list for weeks, and the burden is finally taking its toll”, she whimpered through a second round of tears.

“I totally get it”, I said.

“I don’t think you do”, she replied. And whilst her response was pretty curt, I completely respected her situation and sat comfortably in the silence.

“It’s just painful”, she continued. “To have to console all these people as they come to grips with the fact that they will be out of work this close to the end of the year knowing I’ll be right behind them”.

“It’s not easy at all”, I said, trying to reassure her again.

“How would you know?”, she asked this time even more dismissively.

“Because I’ve had to do it myself”, I replied.

She immediately seemed less defensive.

In a previous life (and the gory details aren’t important for the purposes of this particular piece), I had to let 37 people go over the course of a three-month period, all the while knowing that once I’d played my role as The Terminator or George Clooney’s character from Up in the Air (whichever way people chose to look at it at the time) dealing with emotional outbursts, accusations of betrayal, and highly erratic behaviour, I’d be the one turning the lights off and shutting the door behind me having had my own position made redundant, too.

It was absolutely awful. A double-edged sword: navigating layoffs with a looming axe.

Organisational restructuring, with its inevitable layoffs and redundancies, is a daunting process in itself. HR professionals (like Shyakila) are responsible for ensuring that the process is carried out efficiently, fairly, and with the utmost compassion for the impacted employees. But here’s the twist: What if as the HR professional you are also on the list of those facing the chopping block? The emotional toll of such a situation is immense. You are caught in a crossfire of emotions.  

On one hand, you are expected to be a pillar of strength, helping employees through the difficult transition. On the other, you are grappling with your own uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

In HR circles, this is known as the HR professional’s paradox – the balancing act of navigating HR duties and personal uncertainty during an organisational restructure.

As an HR practitioner you have a reputation to maintain, even when you know it’s game over for you, too. It’s imperative that you maintain the highest standards of professionalism. Your actions and your demeanour set the tone for the entire organisation. You need to become a role model for how employees should conduct themselves during times of upheaval.  

By demonstrating composure, you will inspire others to do the same.

Trust is a fragile commodity in times of crisis. Even though you might be just as angry towards the company as those being laid off knowing that your own position is being made redundant, your colleagues either being impacted or not being impacted by the changes need to have confidence in your ability to handle the situation with integrity and impartiality.  

Regardless of your own situation, you must also adhere unwaveringly to ethical and legal standards. Remember, your ability to maintain professionalism in the face of adversity showcases your resilience and proves that you can endure challenges, persevere, and emerge stronger. This resilience is a testament to the value you have brought to your organisation. It’s also an accomplishment you will be able to take with you into any interview as you embark on your own journey to find a new role.

While the professional imperative is clear, the practical execution is far from straightforward.  

HR professionals must strike a delicate balance between their duties to the organisation and their own emotional well-being.

As Shyakila and I continued our conversation, I explained to her that one of the most crucial aspects of her role is to listen to the concerns and emotions of those team members affected by the layoffs. I re-iterated the importance of showing empathy, knowing full well the emotional turbulence they are experiencing. After all, our own anxieties, in a sense, enable us to connect more deeply with their distress.

There is no doubt that maintaining a positive and solution-oriented attitude can be challenging when facing redundancy yourself.

However, it’s an essential attribute that can inspire, and it shows that even in adversity, you can approach problems with a constructive mindset – another example of a trait you can confidently take into any future job interview.

Fortunately, by the end of our meeting (which had morphed very nicely into a career transition strategy session), Shyakila was much more comfortable accepting the emotionally challenging paradox she was experiencing as an HR professional facing her own impending layoff. I couldn’t stress enough the imperative of remaining professional – even in the face of personal upheaval. By doing so, she was not only supporting her employer and it’s impacted employees, but her own reputation and future career prospects.

An HR professional’s journey through an organisational restructure and associated redundancies is a testament to their resilience and adaptability – a reminder that even in times of personal crisis, the HR function plays a pivotal role in guiding organisations through change.

If you are an HR professional facing the prospect of being laid off as part of your company’s transformation, you should hopefully feel more comfortable in terms of how you will approach the process. However, if you are still feeling somewhat overwhelmed, you can always reach out. After all, we’ve been helping organisations downsize, resize, and restructure for over 35 years.