Why learning your job is safe may be as hard as learning you are losing it

The news that the leading UK retailer Marks and Spencer is to close up to 30 of its stores and get rid of over 500 head office jobs hit the headlines today (November 5th) and will have caused anxiety throughout its workforce, not only those that are likely to lose their jobs but those that stay. A few years ago I was talking to the CEO of a small clothing business who had decided to transform his way of operating, in response to the radical changes that have been taking place in his industry, and he explained how the redundancies he announced affected people.

Curiously, those losing their job, once they had come to terms with the news, were surprisingly phlegmatic. They knew that the business was in trouble and had expected something like that to happen. Even very long serving staff accepted that things had to change and that their jobs were as vulnerable as anybody’s. What surprised him was the effect of the news on those who were staying, whose jobs were safe (at least for now). They suffered from intense guilt about staying when others were going, especially those who had joined much more recently than some of those going. This guilt created anxiety and stress, reducing their motivation and their performance, instead of them responding positively to the news that they were safe, as had been expected.

For many people, the principle of last in, first out is seen as being the fairest way of dealing with a downturn, but the reality of a business that is being transformed is that many new employees are likely to be in the part of the business that’s growing (which is the case with M&S, as it is also growing its food retailing business), whereas longer-serving employees will be in the part that is in decline. This particular CEO said that he found himself having to devote more time to those who stayed, both until the redundant employees had left and for some time after, to motivate them to make the new business strategy successful.

The lesson for M&S, and any other organisation shedding staff, is that those who stay may need as much TLC (tender, loving care) as those who are leaving and effective leaders and managers should think about the needs of both groups, out of general benevolence to the people they manage (which is a key component of leadership trust) and for the long term success of the business. In teaching it’s called differentiation – recognising the learning needs of individual learners. Leaders and managers need to be able to do the same, recognise that people are individuals and will respond to news – both good and bad – in their own ways.