Times are tough. Whilst we have seen some green shoots since the financial crisis of 2008, the economic landscape in South Africa is nonetheless under pressure. Many organisations are still finding trading conditions difficult and unfortunately, this sometimes means companies are forced to rationalise the size of their workforce. This is never a pleasant activity; it can be just as demoralising for the employees who ‘survive’ as for those who are let go. If your organisation is experiencing downsizing or has recently gone through the process, employee engagement is a priority if the company is to recover quickly and realise the financial gains the retrenchments were, unfortunately in terms of the human cost, intended to yield. So while you may be immersed in procedural reviews and organisation charts and other administrative tasks that accompany a Section 189 process, it is vitally important to take the EQ temperature of the workforce and make time for the soft skills of people management.

What are employees feeling?

There is, of course, no single answer to this question, because employees are individuals, and they will not react predictably or consistently, even though there will be some shared emotions. Responses will vary according to personality types: some will embrace change as a challenge; others will be threatened by it and feel unsettled and insecure. Some may feel disappointed or disillusioned; some will be resigned to the inevitable and adapt, but without enthusiasm, becoming disengaged and just ‘going through the motions’. It is important to realise that some employees will decide to leave, but will keep this decision to themselves and bide their time until the job market recovers or simply until they find the opening they are looking for. These quietly dissatisfied ‘remainers’ can be dangerous; they can insidiously undermine the efforts of colleagues to adjust to the new reality.

In our experience of supporting organisations through this process, we’ve found that one of the most recognisable and common emotions is loss…and even grief. Employees who leave not only suffer the loss of security and stable income, they experience the loss of a social environment and regular contact with co-workers who may have become close friends. The unwanted, possibly unexpected and often abrupt termination of the familiar routine can create symptoms of shock and pain not dissimilar to bereavement. This is understandable, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that those who are left experience similar sensations. They may miss seeing their friends every day, they may be angry, and they may be worried about the future (“Was this the first of several rounds of cuts?” “Will the company go under?” etc.). They may feel guilty that they have kept their jobs when co-workers, possibly with more dependants or financial challenges, have lost theirs. Employees will be concerned about their workloads with fewer resources to go round and may worry that their skills won’t be adequate for a changed job description.

Rebuild trust

The most urgent task following a round of retrenchments is the restoration of trust. However sensitively the situation has been handled, trust has been damaged. Accept this and work to re-establish it. Don’t assume that a well-planned and carefully executed transition plan will have prevented the erosion of trust. To some extent, how quickly trust can be restored will depend on how strong the level of organisational trust was before the restructure. There is evidence to show that employees are less likely to resist change if they trust their employer, and they may demonstrate a greater understanding of and support for the reasons behind the process. Employees who trust their organisation’s exhibit behaviours such as sharing information and effective team-working, behaviours that will enable the organisation to move on from a crisis more rapidly than a company without a sound trust basis.

However, you can’t turn the clock back. If you are fortunate to have enjoyed high levels of trust pre-downsizing, you are in a strong position to re-establish trust. If not, you just have to work a bit harder! What are some of the tactics you can use to rebuild trust and re-engage employees?


Communication is always the first tool that springs to mind, for good reason. Communication is essential, but it’s not enough simply to produce and disseminate communications. How do you know if the message is getting through? Are employees reading the updates? Review your channels of communication and measure the uptake or engagement with these.

Be creative with employee engagement

It’s tempting and not inappropriate to introduce team-building activities to help new teams get acquainted and bond. Rather than conventional team-building events, consider encouraging employee volunteering. In addition to fostering strong relationships between co-workers who are involved in meaningful activities together, you will raise awareness among staff of your commitment to socially responsible business practice and the creation of shared value for business and society, which can help revive a reputation dented by restructure, both internally and externally. Allowing individuals to donate their skills not only benefits the charities you choose to support but also advances employees’ own learning and development and increases engagement levels.

Ensure employees feel valued

Remember that even employees who survived the restructure with little change to their roles may be feeling vulnerable; and those who have undergone more extensive change to their departments, teams or positions probably feel even more exposed. This is the time for individual career development discussions to take place between line managers and their staff. This will serve two purposes: most importantly, from an emotional perspective, it will make people feel valued. It might seem obvious that they are valued since they were retained and not let go, but it’s correspondingly natural for employees to question their value when they have watched equally qualified co-workers lose their jobs. Secondly, for those whose roles have changed, there may be anxiety about having sufficient skills and abilities to do the new jobs. Identify any training, resources or support needed and provide them if possible. Let individuals know they have been retained for their skills and their capacity to contribute to the success of the organisation.

Trust resides in relationships. It is not something the organisation can develop facelessly. Line managers must meet not only with their teams but with their team members individually and have these discussions. This will inspire confidence in employees and strengthen commitment.

Allow innovation

You’ve already undergone a lot of change. Don’t stop now. This is an ideal time to challenge assumptions and established ways of doing things. Inevitably, employees will have some criticisms and a lot of ideas about the ‘old ways’ and new improvements. Invite them to share their thoughts. Encourage innovation. Not only is it possible you will save a lot of time and effort, you are also likely to re-engage demoralised or disgruntled employees. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the opportunity to develop or implement one’s own idea.

Involve everyone

Remember that cutbacks affect everyone. The cleaning or catering staff may not be directly involved but they will still experience the drop in morale and tense atmosphere. Senior managers have to juggle a wide range of technical and managerial duties along with the increased meeting schedule and administrative burden of the process. Individuals at all levels need to recover from job cuts and from the stress of the transition process. Strong leadership is more important now than ever, and leaders must encourage everyone to take ownership of their roles and be empowered to create positive changes. It takes everyone in the organisation to generate success.

Let us help

If your organisation is undergoing or has recently undergone a Section 189 restructure, or if you are facing such an action, EOH Human Capital Solutions can help you manage the process efficiently, effectively and sympathetically. We are experts in change management, organisational design and HR strategy, among others. If you would like more information about the services we offer or how we can help your organisation adapt and prosper after downsizing, contact us on 012 940 6300

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