How to downsize with dignity

By Karen Frenkiel - May 30, 2018

Downsizing can be challenging for all involved. However, in today’s working world whether you like it or not, it has become a necessary evil and a very real part of the way organisations continue to operate. As an HR professional who has witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly side of downsizing, I feel that I am well placed to share with you some food for thought in this space.

Guess what? It’s an emotional time.

Well before the final decision is communicated, I can assure you, that individual has already spent countless hours and most of their head space stewing over their future and what the impact of the change will mean for them. As a leader, you need to be self-aware enough and acknowledge that you are setting in motion dramatic change that will transform that impacted individual’s life. Never lose sight of the fact that it is an emotional time and they will be looking for as much support as possible. Not necessarily from you. Either way, ask the question and take a genuine interest.

Don’t let it linger.

There is a lot of talk about the perceived value and importance that HR brings to an organisation. This notion of perceived value is just as valid when it is considered in the context of managing poor performance, or more specifically, retaining poor performers.

When leaders fail to act in a timely manner when managing poor performers, the paralysis can result in a loss of trust and a damaging image which can often spread to the rest of the organization. This can lead to a loss of productivity, a compromised team dynamic, morale and sense of cohesion.

The external impact can also be felt. As a paying customer or client, poor performance is easily detectable. A subpar experience with one person who represents your organisation, may have far greater consequences when that customer or client keeps that experience with them until the next time they are in the market for your product or service.

Talk to me.

In any difficult downsizing conversation, you can be confident that a commitment to honest and regular communication will contribute greatly to a more positive outcome for both parties. Where leaders often fail is in the consistency of the individual experience and the messaging of how it will impact staff individually. To avoid this, here are some tips for how to downsize with dignity and the key considerations in a redundancy or performance management conversation:

Redundancy scenario

Performance management scenario

You do not make a person redundant, but rather, you make a role redundant. This is a critical distinction as it is a common misconception that you can make a person redundant

No one wants to do a bad job. It is part of your responsibility as a leader to try and uncover the reason behind the poor performance and what YOU can do to bring that person’s performance back to where it needs to be. What do THEY need from you in order to improve? Ask them

You are confident that it is a ‘genuine’ redundancy according to the Fair Work Australia definition and you can confidently communicate the rationale for the decision

Evaluate each situation on its merit and decide on a course of action and management style that is right for the individual

You have consulted with individuals (whether directly or indirectly impacted) about the proposed change

Provide clear rationale and specific examples of where the performance has been unsatisfactory. Be direct but polite

You have proactively considered individuals ideas or suggestions about the change, as much as is practically possible

Set clear expectations both in terms of performance and behaviours. This aspect is particularly important once a performance improvement plan is in place for a poorly performing individual

You have discussed steps taken to avoid and minimise the impact on individuals and have genuinely considered redeployment opportunities

You are certain that the performance has declined due to capability or motivation and not something outside of the workplace

You have provided relevant individuals with information about the change and the expected impacts arising


Each and every one of you will be considering this topic in the context of your own personal and professional experience with change. That’s normal. You will be thinking about examples of where it was managed poorly or perhaps a time when you were bracing yourself for a really difficult and uncomfortable conversation and the individual was over the moon and thanking you afterwards. At the end of the day, downsizing will always centre on the individual and individuals are inherently complex creatures. If you can remind yourself of that fact and try and keep your cool using the above considerations I’d say you are doing better than most.

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