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Downsizing the Workforce While Restructuring

Q: In the January 2009 issue of this newsletter you mention the need to develop the right strategy when reducing the workforce and review the organization’s processes. What are your suggestions in these two areas so that we do not terminate our best employees?

A: The Right Strategy

Successfully restructuring a firm in financial difficulty starts with a detailed assessment of the financial and operational viability of the business. Following this study a comprehensive strategy is developed and downsizing the workforce is usually a key component.

Mark Wentzell,
Grant Thornton
A high priority is a review of the strengths, weaknesses, qualifications, experience and promotional prospects of all employees to identify those best suited to meet the future challenges of the restructured firm. The decision on who goes and who stays is management’s, acting on the advice of HR professionals and the restructuring specialist.

Employee Review

Employee performance will be measured against competencies applicable to individual job descriptions. Critical considerations are the ability of employees to adapt to a changing environment and willingness to participate in the restructuring.

Job descriptions will change and entire departments may become redundant. The employees most suited to the coming challenges and those who will be most valuable in contributing to the firm’s future success will be identified.

The question implies that “best employees” are those providing optimal efficiency regardless of where they work. Not always; a highly qualified and respected employee may work in a department that loses money and has little hope of being turned around notwithstanding this employee’s Herculean efforts. Conversely, a highly profitable department may employ workers whose contributions are marginal but whose productivity shortcomings are masked by factors unrelated to employee performance.

The detailed assessment must, therefore, take into account all factors contributing to operational viability, including economic, social, political and non financial factors, as well as the bottom line.

Clearly, the solution for the firm and the highly respected employee is a transfer to an area where their talents can be of mutual benefit to firm and employee. This will depend on the transferability of the employee’s qualifications and their ability to adapt to and flourish in a new role.

Financial and Operational Review

New financial projections will be prepared. These will be based on a determination of the viability and future profitability of each department and cost centre, including products, services, administration and support services. The restructuring specialist will lead the meetings to make this determination.

The viability assessment may include a review of business processes, including departmental governance. A business process review provides a detailed analysis of processes, however minute, that allow for the efficient operation of departments and the whole firm. For example, expected sales orders and anticipated production capacity will determine the optimal number of staff required for sales, inventory control, invoicing and customer records.

Matching operational components is essential to achieving the most efficient and profitable operations. The restructuring specialist will coordinate the review of business processes and governance as necessary.

Bringing The Pieces Together

A new firm profile to match the overall objectives of the restructuring plan will be drafted with the help of the restructuring specialist. Employee profiles will be matched with optimal staffing needs.

Early conclusions will be reached on departmental staffing, affordable compensation and profitability. These are the catalyst for negotiations with department heads which will be wide ranging and focus on results needed to achieve the ultimate survival and prosperity of the firm.

The top priority is retaining the employees best suited to meet the new business plan. It is critical to bring the most valued employees into the discussions on the future direction and structure of the firm as early as possible. Invite their input. Let them know their opinions and suggestions are valued and management will be more accessible. Make them feel they are key members of the team that will spearhead the successful restructure.

Tangible incentives should also be reviewed. Bonus programs, such as retention bonuses, productivity bonuses and stock options could be introduced. Staff benefits, including vacation policies, extended health and dental coverage, family plans for cell phones and blackberries, may be improved. More professional development opportunities and enhanced training courses could be offered.

These techniques are well known to HR professionals but may need reviewing in some cases. Costs of program enhancements, severance and other downsizing, must be factored into the new budgets.

Is any of this different for Union Employees?
My comments apply to all employees. However, additional factors must be considered for union members. Meetings should be held with union representatives as soon as possible to negotiate proposed changes to terms of employment for union members.

Union members’ rights under a collective agreement are frequently inconsistent with changes proposed in the restructuring plan, which will likely call for lay offs and roll-backs of wages and benefits currently enjoyed.

It must be demonstrated that survival of the business is paramount and the restructuring plan is in the best interests of union members. Failure of the restructuring will jeopardize the positions of all employees, including union members;


Treat employees who are let go with respect and courtesy. Explain the reasons for the downsizing and thank them for their service to the firm. Offer them assistance to find alternative employment including any outsourced services they require. In most cases, letters of reference should be provided on request. Above all they should be allowed to leave the firm with dignity.

These are key factors in retaining the best employees. Management would be naïve to think those they wish to retain are not watching carefully to see how the downsizing is handled. Goodwill bestowed on those remaining can quickly turn to mistrust if lay-offs are handled improperly and without due respect.

Again, good communications are paramount. Clear and honest messages delivered in a business like, but compassionate manner, are the cornerstones of the strategy to achieve a successful restructuring.

Remember, the most valuable assets in any organization are its people.

Mark Wentzell, CA, CIRP is Vice President, Restructuring & Reorganization, Grant Thornton Ltd. Vancouver Phone: (604) 443-2173 website:

Mentoring Programs

Q: ”I've been asked by our president to set up a mentoring program. We've all heard and read about the great benefits of mentoring and the basics of developing a program. What are some of the problem areas to watch for and why do some programs fail?”

A: Thanks to the looming talent shortage caused by baby boomer impending retirement, organizations are beginning to feel the talent strain especially in the leadership ranks. Mentoring is quickly become the go-to strategy for HR professionals and leaders looking to quickly transfer knowledge from the senior ranks to the “next in lines”. Unfortunately, like most trends, mentoring programs risk becoming the flavour of the month unless implemented carefully. Here are the top five things that often derail mentoring initiatives:

Glain Roberts-
President, The
1) Lack of clear program goals: Probably the number one reason why mentoring, or frankly any development program, fails has to be this issue. Why are you looking at mentoring as the solution? Is it to shorten executive onboarding time? Is it to build executive leadership capability? Is it to transfer crucial technical or business knowledge? Even if it’s a mix of all of the above, there has to be at least one core reason why you’re looking at mentoring. Once that’s decided, you can determine core program elements like: who should be involved, how long the program should be and what type of mentoring you’ll do (internal vs. external, one to one, small group, peer or a combination).

Underqualified Mentors: An impressive title and a spot at the executive table doesn’t a great mentor make. Don’t make mentoring a command performance for all senior players. Instead, select mentors in the same way you would select anyone for a key position. Interview, do assessments and provide the necessary training to ensure they’re equipped for the job.

Today’s mentoring is not about the wise, grey-haired executive parting the corporate waves to help his young protégé make it to the upper ranks. Today’s mentor must be a savvy combination of coach, counselor, business advisor, champion and provocateur.

Uninterested Protégés: Equal access to training is a good thing. The notion that all employees should receive the same type of training is not so good. Individuals selected to participate in a mentoring program should 1) want a mentor; and 2) need a mentor; 3) be willing to do the work it takes to be in a mentoring relationship. The protégé has to own the relationship. It is up to them to have a clear plan and objectives and come into each meeting prepared to discuss with their mentor their progress against their goals. Done poorly, mentoring meetings will dissolve into nice “coffee talks” and nothing more. This frustrates your busy mentors and will give your mentoring program a bad rap.

Lack of Match Support: A crucial role to the success of any relationship stems around the match-making. Many people will argue that organic mentoring is the only mentoring that works. Strategic (or programmatic) matching can be highly successful as long as there is a solid matching protocol and an emphasis on not just bringing the two parties together, but in supporting the relationship throughout the process. Whether building an internal program or utilizing an external program, make sure there is ongoing coaching and support to the relationship.

Lack of Formal Close: Many executives will shudder when they hear the word “mentoring” as it will bring back the ghosts of protégés past. Don’t place all the energy into the upfront matching process and leave the relationship to sputter out on its own. Make sure that your mentor and protégé have clear ground rules going into the program on the overall timelines and when/how the match will be wrapped up. If working with an external party, make sure there is a formal program evaluation and wrap up at the close.

By steering clear of these pitfalls, you can make sure your mentoring program – whether in-company or inter-company – delivers the results you want and leaves your participants wanting more.

Glain Roberts-McCabe is founder and President of The Executive Roundtable, a membership-based leadership development organization providing inter-company mentoring, peer mentoring and leadership coaching to ambitious mid-career executives.

The Evolution of Grammar

Q. My kids seem to be learning different grammar rules than I learned. Does grammar really change? If so, why? Are there any changes I should be aware of when I write business documents?

A. Although they may not like it, people are now aware that nothing remains the same. Everything changes. That’s why I find it amazing when some people appear stunned to hear grammar rules change.

But why shouldn’t they? Grammar rules were invented to meet a specific need. When the need changes or no longer works, shouldn’t the rule?

Jane Watson,
Associates Inc.
For instance, periods did not exist until the 4th century. At that point, St. Jerome decided he needed them to make his translations of the scriptures easier to understand. I am sure he probably got complaints about the strange mark following strings of words.

When I went to school, we were told to place a comma whenever you would take a breath in a sentence. However, that only works if you speak slowly and pause in acceptable places. If English is not your main language, this can be a confusing rule.

Now there are specific guidelines for when to place a comma, e.g., in complex and compound sentences, after introductory thoughts, after connecting words of two syllable or more (therefore, however, in addition), and before the word “which.”

Heavens! Did you notice the last word in the last paragraph? Yes, in North America, periods and commas are now placed inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons are placed outside. A woman in one of my workshops told of how she caused her son to lose five marks in an essay because of altering his punctuation to the way she learned.

You can now tell where a book has been edited by the position of the quotation marks. Periods placed inside quotation marks tell you the book was edited in Canada or the U.S. Periods outside tell you the book was edited in Britain.

Why did North Americans change? It was the decision of our print media who felt it was less confusing this way and less likely to cause errors in layouts.

I know that at this point you are likely saying why follow the American way. Why not stick with the British? Well, believe it or not, there is a distinct Canadian style. Sometimes we pull from the British, sometimes the American. For example, like the British, we place a “u” in many of our words: colour, favour, and neighbour.

And unlike both the Americans and the British, we double our l’s whenever we add a suffix to a word. Hence, travel becomes travelling and enrol becomes enrollment.

When it comes to making names ending in an “s” possessive, the Canadian way – like the American way – is to only add an apostrophe if the word is two syllables or more: Thomas’ report, Rogers’ network. If the word is one syllable, then you must add an apostrophe plus an “s” – Jones’s diary or Chris’s meeting.

Recently, Britain has changed its rule on the possessive. Now they add an apostrophe plus “s” to make all names possessive: Dick Francis’s book. The British have also just removed the hyphen from over one thousand words, such as thank you, bumble bee, and ice cream. Canadians have never put hyphens in these words.

Let’s get back to commas. When I was at school, we were told never to put a comma before the final “and” in a list. Now it is accepted and even encouraged. It allows busy readers to quickly interpret information. I could write: “She is skilled, professional and enthusiastic.” But if I wrote: “She is skilled, professional, and enthusiastic,” it emphasizes there are three distinct reasons we should hire her.

Semicolons – interesting pieces of punctuation – are rapidly falling into disfavour. Many people don’t use them correctly, and they are difficult to see when reading directly from a computer screen. You can now go your whole life and never use them. Use periods instead. In addition, semicolons are considered outdated with a bulleted or numbered list. If your list consists of complete sentences, then each point would end with a period. If your list consists of sentence fragments, there is no need for any punctuation. (Your lists will look much cleaner.)

Your question now is probably “Who makes up the rules?” In North America, the rules for spelling and style are dictated by the editorial field. Canada’s bible is The Canadian Press Stylebook. In the States, it is The Chicago Manual of Style.

Why is it important to know the rules of grammar – particularly if they are going to change? Believe it or not, grammar does help make a document easier to interpret. The changes occur for a reason. They are not done on a whim to make your life more difficult.

And good grammar projects a positive image of you and your organization.

Jane Watson, president of J. Watson Associates Inc., is a trainer, author, and consultant in the field of written business communications. Visit her website or call her at 905-820-9909.

Avoiding Employee Burnout

Q. What can our organization do to avoid burning out our employees and help them maintain high performance levels?

A. Most employees who are burning out consistently state that they are experiencing varying degrees of difficulty in the same six aspects of their lives. Their coping strategies have failed to prevent them from becoming overloaded by energy-draining workplace stress. There is a breakdown in their professional and personal relations or family conflict leading towards separation and divorce. They have stress-related physical and mental health problems, e.g. insomnia, headaches, anxiety and depression. They feel mentally, physically and emotionally drained and have chronically low energy levels. They are usually afraid to talk about their inability to cope with the workplace pressures and family conflict due to fear of being let go by the employer, ruining their reputation and not being able to get another job in their industry and being alienated by their peers. Sadly, these are often committed, hardworking people who did not recognize when things were getting to them and waited too long before seeking help.

What can be done about this?

Gordon Pfeffer
The Energized
An organization can transform its workplace culture to include a better understanding of burnout which includes the recognition that it can happen to anyone and that it can be resolved. This would also help to remove some of the fear and embarrassment frequently associated with burnout and encourage employees to seek help earlier on. This would also help prevent employees from going on costly short and long term disability. Transforming the workplace culture is a very cost effective strategy when you consider that it is your top performers who tend to burnout and they can typically continue working in this state for two to three years with steadily declining performance levels.

Burnout can be averted, and energy and performance levels can be improved by developing a team culture of collaboration, negotiation and solution-focused thinking which leads to the formation of positive, supportive and energizing relationships. Improving employee communication skills can also help to alleviate workplace pressure. Under stressful working conditions, employees tend to become more negative and problem-focused. The active use of negotiation and solution-focused thinking by team members can help reduce negative stress levels and improve all aspects of a team’s performance.

On an individual basis, burnout can be averted by providing employees with an opportunity to learn effective coping strategies to enable them to respond in positive and adaptive ways to workplace pressures and family expectations. During the early stages of burnout, many employees can often identify one major stressor at work and at home. Once these issues are resolved, the employee can continue to perform at his/her customary level.

A quick and simple way for individuals to lower their negative stress levels and simultaneously increase their personal energy and performance levels is through the practice of chi kung. Chi kung is the oriental art of increasing one’s internal energy levels with special energy generating, mind relaxing and focusing techniques. Kundalini yoga also has some similar benefits and both eastern disciplines will help the individual tap into their body’s natural stress relieving and energy generating capacity.

Mindfulness meditation and other forms of yoga are becoming a popular way to harmonize mind and body and relieve the negative effects of stress. There is also a system of acupressure called Jin Shin Jyutsu which can be safely applied to oneself to obtain relief from stress. An additional benefit of chi kung for those who work shifts or travel across different time zones is that it can reset body cycles to help keep you feeling refreshed, alert and energetic despite irregularities in sleep patterns and time changes.

A simple, yet effective technique to relieve the negative effects of stress and refresh oneself is take 36 breaths. Find a quiet place, sit comfortably, close your eyes and begin breathing naturally by using the abdominal muscles. Keeping the mouth open at all times, let the breath gently move in through the nose, sink down to the diaphragm and then rise up and out of the mouth without much effort. Set the intention to relax and follow the breath by counting the inhale or exhale and count from 1-9 four consecutive times. Finish by performing one more last exhale with a gentle “hhaahh” sound.

A quick stress breaker is to gently exhale and throw your keys up in the air, then inhale as you catch them, repeating for a few moments. This will immediately synchronize mind and body and place the mental focus in the present moment, turning off the stress response in your body.

Gordon Pfeffer is President, The Energized Executive and can be reached at Website:


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