Organisations sometimes forget that a workplace operates due to many factors, i.e., the market it operates in, its financial resources, workforce, strategy and assets. As strategic HR professionals, we are taxed with finding a balance between organisational and workforce needs. Long-term strategic changes have a great impact on employees, but making sure this change is correctly brought about is harder than it sounds. This is especially important during crises, of which 2020 has been a perfect example. Countless global organisations terminated contracts during this time, whereas others chose to furlough employees.
Since many countries do not have support mechanisms for the unemployed, these layoffs led to horrendous consequences for their labour market. Fortunately, the EU, USA, UK, NZ and AUS have mechanisms in place for crisis management, such as government subsidies for unemployment. Although these schemes have provided temporary support to some, one must meet certain requirements to qualify for them. Paying said subsidies can put tremendous pressure on the government, which further impacts the tax system in the coming years. More often than not, these subsidies barely help cover rent or basic food costs for those impacted. What is also forgotten, is the mental impact these decisions have had on the affected. In December 2020, I was related one such case by a pilot* who is technically employed, yet not working.
“If you receive a communication from your employer that you will get an advance of €300 to compensate for the delays in receiving unemployment subsidies, you might believe it, right? If they then require you to notify payroll should you opt to receive this advance, you would increasingly believe it, wouldn’t you? Why? Because you place trust in them. You trust they will live up to their values. You trust that they will demonstrate integrity. However, what happens if you don’t receive the advance? What happens when they issue a communication the day before they promised to provide the advance, reneging on their deal? What happens to that trust? Such is the account lived by employees based in Spain and working for a European airline (hereafter referred to as “CX Air”) during 2020.
CX Air is an airline carrier engaged in both short and long-haul operations. Because of its ambitious growth plans, it racked up a lot of debt and had brought on a weak financial position. What was heard in the grapevine came to light in January 2019, when CX Air announced a series of budgetary cuts along with the closure of operating bases in Europe. As loyal employees, we stayed with them because we knew employment was somewhat like marriage: in sickness and in health. We stuck together as a team and took on the cuts to our benefits, knowing and trusting greener pastures laid ahead. CX Air was convalescing and needed recovery time. Their motto changed to “We are One”.
Throughout 2019, we prayed for redundancies not to arrive, which sadly did for a few colleagues in short-haul. Whilst they were initially forced redundancies, our trade unions stepped up their game and turned them into voluntary redundancies, with an acceptable severance package. At the end of 2019, employees in the long-haul were affected. Because we knew that the long-haul business was the cash-cow of the company, we deduced that their financial outlook was still quite poor.
Along came 2020, and with it a glimmer of hope. CX Air had placed employees in the long-haul on reduced work hours and therefore pay. March 2020 would have been the watershed for this work-hour reduction and Summer 2020 was supposed to be their busiest season ever. Then, COVID-19 appeared on the balance sheet, and took everyone off their balance. The company was forced to draw up a recapitalization plan to secure a significant amount of debt-to-equity conversion. In short, they needed money. We prayed that it would be accepted. We even shared this on social media to raise awareness. The outcome was to be announced on the 4th May 2020.
From a reduced work pattern in December 2019 to a full contract suspension in March 2020, employees based in Spain were placed on the government furlough scheme once the pandemic was declared. Without going into politics, there were massive delays in receiving these subsidies for a multitude of reasons. Most employees went from a pay check one month to no pay check the next. Some went on to no pay check for several months.
CX Air came to learn of this and decided to help out. The offer was to provide an advance of €300 on the 5th May 2020, which was supposed to be returned once work resumed. Quid pro quo. This kind gesture was well received, initially.
On the 4th May 2020, a day before receiving this advance, we rejoiced with CX Air when we discovered that the recapitalization plan was approved. We were safe once again, or so we thought, until the dreaded communication arrived at 19:55 that very Monday.
It felt like getting cheated in a 10-year relationship. We felt betrayed and were heartbroken. Not only was CX Air “regretful” of not being able to provide the advance promised to us the following day, but they also informed us that they would withdraw all access to our company e-mails, platforms, documents and hinted at requiring us to return our uniforms! Pinch me please and take me out of this nightmare is what most of us hoped for, but reality quickly set in.
It shattered like glass. Amidst the confusion, there were a million pieces scattered everywhere and it was hard not to get hurt. Trust had been broken. We had been broken. When the unions got involved, CX Air had to retract their intention of getting our uniforms back. The argument for this was that we were all still legally employed in Spain and local law made it illegal to fire us as a result of COVID-19, or that was the initial decree. I speak for the employees in Spain, who have been the hardest hit within the company. We were and are left in limbo on the meagre government subsidy which continues to date. Tied to the company only because they cannot afford to fire us, the bond between us snapped many moons ago.”
I won’t say that this account pleased me. Truth be told, it leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. Of course, I am not advocating keeping employees on an unsustainable payroll. As an HR consultant, I duly understand the need to terminate contracts for reducing overheads and guaranteeing organisational sustainability. I am, however, in favour of doing it correctly. Employees can be let go of gracefully, with decent communication in advance and by providing the required support. (Airbnb e.g., is a great example of successfully handling layoffs during a crisis, and you can read all about their approach here.) If you break employees’ trust during a crisis, your rating as an employer of choice will go down negatively. This mistrust will also impact your remaining employees, because they might wonder when it is their turn to be mistreated. They might not say it, but they will be on the lookout for new jobs out of fear.
Can this damage ever be repaired, you ask? The short answer is: yes, but it’s not easy. Gaining trust takes time and is much harder than breaking it, and changing behaviour in an organisation is equally arduous. I have summarised my tips for (re)gaining employees’ trust below, based on what was presented to me. Implementing these tips should give your organisation and employees a boost to recover from the after effects of poor communication and broken trust over time. Be sure to give it your ultimate commitment and efforts before it yields results.
6 tips for (re)gaining employees’ trust
1. Foster transparency: Be clear about the company’s current state & steps to be taken. It’s better
they find out any news from management than from the media or the grapevine.
2. Communicate frequently: Make use of in-person and digital meetings to ensure that employees have the opportunity to resolve their doubts & ask questions.
3. Ask your employees what they need to succeed: Many companies struggle with allocating resources that actually work for their employees. Asking them is a great way to create a win-win situation. Develop forms, feedback sessions and interactive forums to facilitate this.
4. Don’t go back on your word: If you promise something, be sure to deliver it. Otherwise, you risk causing irreparable damage to and distrust in the company. If you can’t offer something, don’t promise it in the first place.
5. Be open to feedback: Employees will tell you when a process/product/policy doesn’t work. While this may sound problematic, it is actually an opportunity for improvement at source. Give them an opportunity and you may be surprised at the results.
6. Get to know your people: It’s easy to speak with employees during meetings or when entering & leaving the office. The key, however, is in building relationships. Asking about their day, their lives & what motivates them is a good start. This can be done online too!
*The names of the pilot and his employer have been concealed to safeguard their identity.