Ask the HR agony aunt... Redundancies and personal situations

Here are some real-life dilemmas faced by HR directors we spoke to, and the advice from others in the profession

"An employee accepted voluntary redundancy and had a long notice period of six months. Then two weeks before they were due to leave they discovered they had leukaemia, so their financial situation suddenly became very different and they wanted to rescind their redundancy. The organisation had already banked on them going, the job wasn’t there. However, if the individual had previously said they didn’t want to take it they probably would have survived the round of redundancies. What’s the right, most ethical path to take?"

The first step is to have a “human conversation” with the employee to understand their situation, believes Carrie Birmingham, founder of Carrie Birmingham Consult and former HRD at News UK. “Junior HR people resort to process because it feels safe whereas great HR people sit down with people who are in pain and talk to them,” she says, adding that because redundancies have become a fact of life for HR the danger is “we detach from it”.

Having faced a similar dilemma Birmingham found the employee another role, deferring redundancy for six months. “Challenge the business to see what’s possible,” she encourages.

And even if the employee’s preferred outcome isn’t possible, “there’s a big difference between saying ‘no’ in writing once you’ve thought about it for 30 seconds and listening to their story and making a genuine effort to try and make it work”.

Sometimes redundancies are unavoidable, agrees group HRD at Charles Stanley Kate Griffiths-Lambeth. But how they are handled is critical. It comes back to the link between the human and commercial sides of the business, she says: “If you behave in the right way, when the market picks up and you want to recruit people will say: ‘I want to work there as look how they behaved when times were tough’. The ripples are wider than the immediate individual.”

However, making special allowances for one employee isn’t necessarily fair for all.

“When you go through redundancies terrible personal stories often come out of the woodwork for many people,” says Claire Fox, chief people officer at Unicef UK. “You have to remember it’s about more than just that one person because what about the other people in a similar situation that you don’t know about?

“To do a U-turn, totally undermining all your policies, could be really kind to that one person while being unfair to everyone else.”

“The reality is there’s more than one human side to that story,” agrees Dan Peyton, London office managing partner at McGuireWoods. “If by rescinding redundancy for that employee you are depriving another person of their job that’s another difficult human situation.”

Taking the human approach in the short term may not be the most ethical response for the individual in the long term either. “The difficulty with the knee-jerk reaction to take the more emotionally-appealing popular step is that it’s not always the right one,” Peyton explains. “I suspect any HR professional could relay a time where as an act of compassion they haven’t terminated somebody’s employment, only for that person’s eventual departure to be more painful as a consequence of not being done at the appropriate time. Sometimes the obvious ethical thing to do isn’t [in fact the most ethical] – that’s why we have policies.”

There’s also the “thorny” matter of being too paternalistic in this scenario, believes Ian Williams, former HRD global network at the British Council.

“We have to be careful around the parent-child relationship. Are organisations responsible for propping up shortcomings in the social care system?"

Check the website over the next few days for more advice on some real-life ethical dilemmas faced by HRDs

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

Further reading

Ethics and HR

Trust is the foundation of business

What HR can do about a post-truth workplace

Why HR professionals are losing their humanity