Navigating Economic Downturns — Protecting Your Employment Brand for the Future

KWABy MarkBy Mark Surrette, KWA Partners in Atlantic Canada.

MONTREAL (PRRN) 4/28/09For several years, we’ve been hearing about a looming war for talent. Baby boomers are starting to retire and fewer young workers are available to replace them. Already we’re seeing the impacts of that significant demographic shift in certain industries, disciplines and geographies.

The significant challenges posed by this talent crunch are now being overshadowed by the current financial crisis. Originally contained to the U.S. subprime mortgage industry, the crisis has spread rapidly, now reaching global proportions. From Australia to Germany, from France to Japan, the repercussions are being felt in every nation and industry, and not one Canadian province or sector has been exempted. Most provinces are forecast to realize only marginal GDP growth in 2009. Even red-hot Alberta, which has been an economic powerhouse in recent years, has struggled of late. In the wake of these developments, companies across the nation are looking at various strategies to survive, including downsizing.

Though the recession will be deeper and longer than predicted, I am confident that the markets will rise again. Governments have, and continue to announce unprecedented stimulus plans to address the situation. Though it will take time for promised tax cuts and new spending to take effect, these measures will gradually stimulate the country’s economy, putting us on the road to recovery. The Canadian business leaders I have spoken with recently share my sense of optimism. This is a sharp contrast to the doom and gloom during the downturns of the early eighties and nineties, and the more recent dot-com bust. When the recovery begins, the companies that are downsizing now will find themselves returning to the labour market, hiring the top talent to meet renewed demand for their products and services. How organizations manage current restructuring efforts will impact their ability to recruit employees in the future, when the gulf between the demand and supply of talent will be even more pronounced.

Such decisions are fraught with challenges regardless of the driving forces. Beyond the moral and social responsibility to treat people with dignity and respect, it makes good business sense to effectively manage the human impact of such change. People remember how you treated them and they talk about it. If they perceive their experience as negative or unfair, they will share it with friends, family and colleagues. Given the ready access to Internet and social networking tools, the harm to your employment brand can be swift and far-reaching, and can haunt you when you are ready to recruit new talent. There are also the perceptions of your remaining employees to consider. If they believe you have not been fair or respectful to departing employees, they will look for other job opportunities once conditions improve. Those most likely to depart are the individuals with the most options – your top talent.

As you can see, how you manage your downsizing efforts will have long-term impacts on your organization. Employers of choice understand the value of looking at their HR policies with a marketing perspective. It’s a different perspective than a lawyer or HR professional typically brings to the table, and one that should be taken into consideration because it is rooted in doing what is right for the corporate brand. It’s a perspective that recognizes how you handle downsizing can breed ill-will among exiting and remaining employees, compromising your corporate brand and squandering the considerable time and money you’ve invested in securing customers. Adopting strategies to treat departing employees fairly – treating them like alumni or ambassadors of your organization – mitigates bad feelings. It also sends a positive message to employees who remain and helps maintain your employment brand when you return to the labour market.

One of the best strategies for protecting your employment brand against the negative impacts of downsizing is to engage professional career consultants to implement a Career Transition program. A well-executed program provides support to everyone impacted by a downsizing. It gives senior management access to expert advice in planning notification-day communications and logistics. Frontline managers get personal coaching to ensure the message is carried out professionally, and with maximum respect. Exiting employees receive emotional support immediately following notice of the job loss, and coaching for conducting a successful job search – particularly critical given current labour market conditions. Remaining employees participate in workshops to understand and deal with the emotions that accompany such changes, improve individual engagement and build team cohesiveness. That’s the real value of a Career Transition program: it keeps your organization focused and productive, it ensures exiting employees leave on the best possible terms, and it protects your employment brand.

As you navigate these turbulent economic times, keep in mind that the way you treat your employees today – both those who are leaving and those who remain – will have an impact on your employment brand. As economic conditions improve, you’ll find yourself staffing up in the face of more heated competition for talent than exists today. By treating departing people with dignity and supporting their transition, you safeguard and maintain your employment brand with them, with your current staff, and in the broader labour market. And that will give you the advantage over your competitors when the time comes to recruit again.

Mark Surrette is a member of the KWA Partners Board of Directors and President of Robertson Surrette, representing KWA Partners in Atlantic Canada. Mark has extensive experience in successfully recruiting executive talent and providing strategic HR advice to organizations throughout Atlantic Canada. KWA Partners is Canada’s leading provider of quality, personalized career management services.

All questions relathing to this article or KWA Partners can be directed to Elke Steinwender, Senior Marketing Advisor, 2, Place Alexis Nihon, Suite 1100, Montreal, QC, H3Z 3C1. Tel 514-932-0159. email:

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