Anatomy of a retrenchment

The past week has been emotional for SPH, with company-wide retrenchments. There is no good way to retrench people. But as I found out, the opposite of retrenchment is resilience.

The past week has been emotional for many of us in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), especially in The Straits Times (ST) where I work.

The retrenchment of over 30 of our colleagues in the ST newsroom, part of the 130 retrenched from across the SPH company, has sent many into a tailspin of emotions.

This was the first retrenchment exercise I observed up close. Here are my takeaways.

1. There is no good way to retrench people

No matter what senior managers do, how well they plan the exercise, the impact on those affected will be largely negative. In SPH's case, unions and management negotiated what is widely considered a generous package: one month's pay per year of service, capped at 25 months, plus notice pay (one month for bargainable staff, three months for more senior staff). We had career coaches and counsellors on standby, and a database of job openings.

My bosses made it plain that people were being retrenched because jobs were no longer relevant, or the number of positions for a particular skill set had shrunk. Performance was not the issue.

But no matter how it is portrayed, the stigma of retrenchment remains. It stings.

And for those who had been happy at work, the trauma of instant separation must be hard to bear.

You come in one day as an employee of a company. Before the day is over, you are told you have to leave; you pack your things and you hand in your pass. SPH gave those retrenched leeway to come back the next day or over the quiet weekend to pack - but separation is separation, even if some of your worldly artefacts linger on in a former abode.

For my company, one big boo-boo took place when some staff found out they were retrenched the hard way - when they couldn't log into their computer system when they came to work. It wasn't meant to be thus, but it happened. SPH bosses apologised for the error.

2. When you scale down, you also need to boost up

Retrenchments take place in companies facing challenges. For SPH, whose stronghold was newspaper publishing, the decline of print media is structural. Our media profits have been falling. Everyone knows that. While the company remains profitable, an increasing share of those profits comes from non-core businesses in property and healthcare.

The core media business is dwindling, as print advertising revenue dries up, and digital ad revenue has yet to flood in. The retrenching of editorial staff should come as no surprise.

But even as print media declines, the promise of digital media is ripe. Digital ad spending is on the rise worldwide.

As SPH moves from print to digital, we will need fewer of some skill sets, and more of others. We need more videographers, fewer print photographers, for example. We need more interactive graphic designers, fewer print illustrators. So, even as SPH retrenches staff, it also needs to grow, and expand, and join the war for digital talent.

Engulfed with heavy feelings, a colleague and I left the newsroom that Thursday for an early dinner. We both had the same uneasy feeling - a sentiment akin to survivor's privilege or even survivor's guilt - why them, not us? There is a time to be a cog in a company wheel. There is a time to be a person. When someone has lost his job, it is time to be the latter.

So even as a company retrenches, its leaders must be able to rally the rest to believe in a future.

This is why SPH chiefs spoke about having to retrench in one breath, and the need to expand its media operations in the next. ST, for example, is expanding its regional coverage and is hiring experienced journalists to report on the region.

Boosting morale and rallying the troops to believe in a bright future is the flip side of retrenchment. After all, you trim to get the body corporate into fit fighting shape for battle.

3. Think with the brain, feel with the heart

Retrenching is wrenching, but it may be necessary. Retrench with the head - and then execute and empathise with the heart.

I had the privilege - or discomfiting position - of being in middle management through this exercise.

Rationally, I can understand the reasons for retrenchment. When a business is declining, you have to streamline operations and reduce costs. You can't forever have, say, the same 100 people producing work that generates three-quarters of the revenue that was generated 10 years ago, as is the case for the core media business in SPH.

Even if other parts of the company are still profitable, you don't really want to carry on with that cost structure of 100 people producing stuff with declining revenue.

But emotionally, you feel the impact of seeing colleagues devastated by the retrenchment.

I decided to compartmentalise the two parts. Accept the fact of retrenchment rationally. Then try to be there emotionally for those affected.

There are three groups of those affected.

First, those retrenched. For this group, the rest of us can be empathetic and supportive. Listen and sympathise. Help pack up or drive their belongings home, if that's needed. Have a cup of coffee with your colleagues in the canteen.

Match your former colleagues with job openings that you know of. I have a wide range of very nice friends and contacts. I asked around for job openings. Other editors did likewise. We helped funnel job openings to those looking for new opportunities. Research has shown that weak ties - such as friends of friends - are often the best sources for job openings.

The second worst hit emotionally, in my view, are the bosses who made the decision on where the axe should fall.

The editors I know in SPH are decent, good people. One of them said at a townhall meeting that this was the most difficult decision he had to make in his career of over 25 years. Another boss felt "physically sick" from the long sessions and difficult decisions.

It is therapeutic for people to point the finger upwards and blame bosses. But now that I am in middle management and see their point of view, I can't do so with a good conscience.

No matter how they decide, bosses will face criticism for their call; worst of all, they will feel the moral burden of deciding whose job should go. I don't think many people bear such burdens lightly.

I was appreciative that my boss, a key decision-maker in the exercise, told us middle managers that if there was any "opprobrium" from staff, it should be directed at him.

At the same time, the leaders who made the decision must remain emotionally engaged with those retrenched and those who remain, and make time to let staff talk through their feelings.

The third group affected are the rest who remain. They may feel anxiety and sadness for those affected. There will be feelings of vicarious indignation for those retrenched, and empathy. Inter-washed among the maelstrom of feelings will be some relief - or disappointment in some cases from those who wanted the payout - at being spared this time round.

Engulfed with heavy feelings, a colleague and I left the newsroom that Thursday for an early dinner. We both had the same uneasy feeling - a sentiment akin to survivor's privilege or even survivor's guilt - why them, not us?

There is a time to be a cog in a company wheel. There is a time to be a person. When someone has lost his job, it is time to be the latter.

4. Resilience is the opposite of retrenchment

Some of the colleagues I spoke to remained upbeat and positive. D-Day, Thursday, was a shock for some. But it was all systems go from The Day After.

I had breakfast with a young colleague on Saturday. On Monday morning, she was meeting a prospective employer. In the afternoon, she was discussing a freelance assignment.

Another colleague I was bugging to finish her curriculum vitae (CV) told me she had to finish a last article for The Straits Times. My heart choked at that point - such loyalty from this young reporter, to an employer who had just dispensed with her services. I decided to be a friend first, an employee second. Forget ST, I said. Do your CV first. (The company in question was looking for people urgently.)

Another colleague told me the other team members she had worked with for years in ST had rallied round her. She is staying hopeful, looking ahead.

One colleague organised a farewell tea inviting ex-colleagues who had just been retrenched. This is one small way to aim for closure.

Resilience means accepting the inevitable, dealing with the hurt, and then doing one's best to cope by remaining hopeful of new openings.

•This was first published yesterday on www.straitstimes.com/opinion under the Opinion Editor's Blog.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'Anatomy of a retrenchment '. Print Edition | Subscribe