What's Your Problem?

I'm the HR manager of a firm of around 120 people. We've merged with another company and now I'm in the unenviable position of having to make 40 staff redundant.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We've already identified those we'd like to approach for voluntary redundancy but I'm worried that because 29 of them are women, we'll be accused of sexism. I'm therefore tempted to include more male names, but I don't really think that is fair on them. What would you recommend we do?

A: I can understand your temptation and I'll return to sympathy in a sentence or two. For the moment, I need to be brutal.

In your role as HR manager it's your responsibility, working with your CEO, to hire, train and retain the most effective staff you can afford.

This is not a crude, capitalist imperative, driven by the need to produce the best possible return for your owners. You owe it to your staff - every one of them - to try to do the same. Talented and conscientious people can be thwarted and demotivated by being required to work alongside slower, less able people. An obvious tolerance at management level of second-rateism broadcasts an almost tangible message throughout the company. The understandable response: why should I bother if other people don't and nobody seems to mind either way?

In setting out to hire, train and retain the most effective staff that you can afford, you'll make mistakes. That doesn't matter a bit. But once you've identified mistakes, you must be seen to correct them. There'll be times when you make exceptions for humanitarian reasons but they should be few and, ideally, temporary.

With all this stern stuff out in the open, you must realise that there's only one way you can approach your unenviable task of making 40 members of staff redundant. To encourage some people to go mainly because of their sex is not just unfair on them: it's unfair on every single person in your company.

Your only criterion must be their level of contribution to the company.

Not everyone, of course, will agree with your assessment. There'll be real regret and recrimination whoever you choose. The not-so-competent often inspire loyalty and liking as much as the superstars, if not more, and you should certainly take these things into account. But you are not conducting a popularity contest.

Yes, you'll almost certainly be accused of sexist discrimination. But won't you find it easier to live with that than knowing you've consciously weakened the effectiveness of your entire company in the hope of saving yourself some temporary embarrassment

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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