Internal branding can set the foundation for a healthy organisational culture and lessen the pain of retrenchment.
Organisational restructuring is a common practice in the dynamic business environment, particularly in an era where disruptions are becoming increasingly prevalent due to rapid technological advancements. Restructuring often involves the retrenchment (outplacement) of staff whose roles are seen as duplicate, surplus, or redundant. The retrenchment of staff at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) in October 2017 is a clear example of how disruptions in the media industry had compelled them to change or be made irrelevant.
Nevertheless, retrenchment exercises are painful for those retrenched and those who stay on. Retrenched staff often endure anxiety, hurt, and even resentment—more so for those who feel strongly threatened by their loss of livelihood. 1 However, the effects of retrenchment on staff who stay behind is seldom discussed. Anticipating the news and witnessing their colleagues being laid off can be depressing. Uninsulated from the negative effects of retrenchment, they too experience the emotional and psychological pain caused by this separation. This can upset morale, leading to poor productivity and an increased suspicion towards management. 2 In more extreme cases, the psychological anxiety can be too much to handle for some, leading to poor health. Others may consider resigning despite not being selected for outplacement as they fear getting retrenched in subsequent waves of retrenchment. In view of this, good talent can still be lost despite intentions to retain talent. In other words, the repercussions of a poorly executed retrenchment exercise which creates unease in an organisation is analogous to a triggered cancer that spreads to other parts of a body. Embarking on early internal branding initiatives can therefore help organisations minimise such retrenchment woes if it does occur.
Conceptually, internal branding is a powerful initiative because it helps employees connect emotionally and meaningfully with the corporate brand. 3 From a strategic perspective, it impels employees to be unified and inspired by a common sense of purpose and identity that is cascaded throughout the organisation—minimising the dissonance between the staff’s and organisation’s values. Instead, it elicits pride, positive emotion, and a sense of achievement which in turn leads to workplace happiness and high work performance. 4 In this vein, when restructuring occurs, the majority of staff will trust the organisation to do the right thing. Those selected for retrenchment trust the company to treat them with dignity and prepare them for the next career move outside the company. The morale for those who remain stays positive; they trust that the company would continue to be fair to them and facilitate in their career development.
Aside from building a high performance team, internal branding builds a strong foundation for minimising the distress caused by restructuring. Here are four key areas that organisations should start embarking on in terms of internal branding practices.
Make Time for Internal Branding
Firstly, there is never a good time to embark on internal branding. In fact, companies should make use of eventful episodes or organisational milestones to kick-start and announce such initiatives. Leadership renewals or changes in the direction of a business are just some examples. Yang Kee Logistics embarked on internal branding when there was change from first to second generational leadership, while SAA Architects did so when they decided to expand their business regionally. 4
Consistent Team Building
Secondly, consistent team building exercise is key to building trust—both vertically and horizontally. A cultural transformation in team cohesion can be achieved when there is consistent staff engagement. Internal communication only impacts the staff cognitively but does not translate to behavioural change. Such team building initiatives should be part of a larger programme to cultivate the culture of trust. This is crucial in times of retrenchment where minimising suspicion towards the management is crucial to avoid dips in performance. Staff should not feel deceived despite feeling hurt. Reconciliation can take place faster if trust is central to the culture.
Thirdly, brand storytelling reinforces organisational values and emotionally connects staff to the corporate brand—arousing a sense-of-belonging and pride for an organisation. Successful brands like Haier, GE, and Yang Kee Logistics use stories that draw on corporate milestones to rally their staff. For instance, Haier relates how their chief executive officer (CEO) had destroyed 76 substandard Haier refrigerators to underscore the organisation’s commitment to quality. 5 Yang Kee Logistics set up a museum at their office entrance to constantly remind and motivate staff of key milestones and the people instrumental to their success. Other platforms that can help reinforce brand stories include the company’s Web site, spatial design, campaigns, and events.
Integrating Outplacement Exercises
Finally, outplacement exercises can be weaved into internal branding strategies as contingencies so that retrenchments can be performed in an empathetic, sensitive, and transparent manner should the need arise. Examples include sponsoring retrenched staff for retraining, finding jobs for them, and providing counselling services to those feeling distressed. Consider partnering a retained staff with a retrenched staff to play an active role in assisting a colleague and in affirming each other.
In conclusion, organisations need to keep their staff resilient and positively engaged during periods of restructuring. After all, such exercises are meant to turn the business around; not upside down. Internal branding can set the foundation for a healthy organisational culture and lessen the pain of retrenchment.
1 Dvorak, P, Lublin, JS, 20 August 2009, Outplacement firms struggle to do job, Wall Street Journal.
2 Vickers-Willis, T, 2009, Recession proof your business—win their hearts & minds, APS Psychologists: ‘Good Thinking’, assessed via http://www.vwcorp.com.au/html/written/RecessionProofByWinningHeartsMindsV2.pdf.
3 Mitchell, C, 2002, Selling the brand inside, Harvard Business Review.
4 Lim, L, 2016, Brand bull run: Why some brands grow faster than others. Singapore: Louken Academy.
5 Day, P, 23 October 2013, Smashing way to start a global business, BBC News, assessed via http://www.bbc.com/news/business-24622247.
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