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Good HR directors project calm, confidence in the face of downturn

These are turbulent times for Mississippi businesses weathering the downturn in the economy, and keeping things flowing smoothly on the human resources (HR) front is a challenge especially if HR directors are faced with the difficult task of cutting employees’ hours or downsizing.

Often employees want reassurance that no staff reductions are planned. But even in the best economy, the needs of the business can require staffing-level changes. So, rarely will an HR director make blanket statements about no layoffs being planned.

One way HR directors can help is by projecting calm and confidence.

“If an HR director is anxious about the affects of the current economy on staffing levels at their company, you can bet that many of the employees are, as well,” said Sally Reynolds, who is the HR manager for the AT&T Customer Service Center in Ocean Springs, which has more than 500 employees.

Reynolds has several recommendations for HR directors to keep the company moving in the right directions:

• Step up employee communications. Work with your communications expert to expand both upward and downward communication.

• Monitor the grapevine and address issues of concern to all employees through your newsletter, intranet or other channels.

• Hold casual meetings or town halls to engage employees in one’s business and one’s industry’s trends.

“There is no need to tell employees that staff reductions aren’t currently planned,” Reynolds said. “If they are informed about the state of the company and the outlook is strong, the anxiety level will be addressed. “

Bethany Brantley Johnson, a shareholder with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak, and Stewart, Ridgeland, said with the ever-changing business economy, including corporate mergers, the decline of certain industries and the general economic downturn, layoffs, workforce reduction or reduction in force has become a recurring reality.

As a result, many stable employers find themselves for the first time contemplating reductions in their workforce in order to survive. Johnson said employers need to be aware of the legal “land mines” that lay before them as they plan and implement the reductions.

“Perhaps the most important consideration an employer has in a reduction in force (RIF) is establishing the true reason for the RIF and the goals the company is seeking,” Johnson said. “This is key not only to the implementation of the RIF, but also serves as the legitimate, non-discriminatory, business justification for the action if challenged by an employee or a group of employees.

Usually, the employer’s need for a RIF is economic in nature. The employer must be able, however, to provide “chapter and verse” on the necessity for the RIF. Thus, careful consideration of this from the beginning is imperative so that the employer is not faced later with providing conflicting or indefensible reasons for the reduction.

“An employer needs to plan how the RIF is to be done and establish criteria as to which employees and/or departments will be affected,” Johnson said. “A business plan is helpful to chart the course. In addition, a business plan can serve as the primary document establishing the employer’s legitimate reasons and the non-discriminatory manner in which it is implemented.”

If the employer is trying to avoid a layoff or other type of reduction in force, it can start with a planned “early out” program designed to reduce the workforce as much as possible on a voluntary basis. Again, an employer must formulate criteria for eligibility and design a plan.

“Such a plan may achieve the necessary reductions without the need for an involuntary RIF,” Johnson said. “However, if an involuntary RIF is necessary thereafter, it may bolster the legitimacy of the RIF, and demonstrate the employer’s good faith attempt to reduce the workforce in as ‘gentle’ a manner as possible.”

In addition to the above factors, she recommends employers consider alternative approaches to dismissing employees. These can include hiring freezes, job sharing, transfers and true layoffs where employees have the right to be recalled.

Employers can substantially minimize the risk of wrongful termination litigation by ensuring that employees are treated fairly in the termination process. Johnson said the mistakes most often made by employers in the termination process include the following:

• Providing the employee with a reason for the termination that later proves to be false.

• Terminating the employee for poor performance or misconduct when other employees have not been terminated in similar circumstances.

• Terminating the employee for a reason that is trivial or unrelated to the needs or goals of the business.

• Not following company termination or discipline policies.

• Terminating the employee in violation of a state or federal statute, such as state and federal antidiscrimination laws.

Johnson said in order to minimize the risk of a wrongful termination action, employers should at a minimum review the termination decision to ensure the following:

• The decision does not violate company policies, past practice with respect to other employees in similar situations or any state or federal statute.

• Proper documentation exists to corroborate the termination.

• The employee is provided with a properly drafted notice of termination.

• Alternatives to termination have been considered, such as suspension or probation.

• The employee participates in an exit interview.

Workplace violence can sometimes result from layoffs. Johnson said helping be proactive in preventing violence in the workplace by having the necessary policies, processes and understanding to adequately handle it if it occurs is a must.

“Today, workplace violence is pervasive to the point that every employer can expect to deal with it in some form to some degree,” Johnson said. “But, serious damage to employees, customers and/or property does not necessarily become inevitable. An understanding of the violence in the workplace including its scope, causes, warning signs, costs, liability and mitigation techniques provided through these materials will hopefully help lay the groundwork for being prepared if and when an incident occurs.”

Recognizing potential signs of trouble is key. The timely reporting of violence is an essential element to securing the safety of employees. Anything that makes employees uncomfortable should be reported to security or supervision immediately, but particularly the following:

• Unfamiliar people in the work place.

• Signs of weapons.

• All threats, even by non-employees.

• Non-functioning locks, lights or security equipment.

• Signs of domestic abuse.

• Anything making one uncomfortable or suspicious.

In addition to prompt reporting of violent incidents, Johnson said it is important that employees are trained to understand and comply with workplace violence-prevention programs and other safety and security measures, and participate in employee complaints or suggestion procedures covering safety and security concerns.

“Having well-trained employees and supervisors who understand what to look for and how to report potential problems will help employers recognize potential violence issues and address them before the threats become real,” Johnson said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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