How to implement an unpopular program

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Unfortunately, it isn’t always about giving raises, flexible work or introducing perks – sometimes, HR professionals have no choice but to implement a program that won’t be popular – so how do you do it?

“This is where the essence of effective change management is paramount – and it can be tricky,” admits Soula Courlas, national lead of people and change services at KPMG Canada. “But the fundamental question that needs to be clearly addressed is -- why are we making this change?”

Toronto-based Courlas has over 25 years’ experience in strategic HR positions – she says the preparation required to carefully understand the impact of a change, particularly if it is anticipated to be unpopular, can’t be overstated. It’s vital that the rationale for a ‘change’ is translated into the context of impacted employee groups, including leaders, so they are fully aware of how things will be different and why.

“Be clear about the drivers for change and the case for change,” she urged. “There needs to be a clear line of sight from the change to an overall strategy or objective so that the change is in context, makes sense (even if unpopular), and in essence, conveys logic, fairness, and a bigger picture.”

Communicating key aspects of the change in an effective and respectful manner is also vital to the implementation process.
“If there is information that should be shared, it should be shared as soon as possible – especially if it’s going to affect peoples’ jobs or the way they’re going to be performing their jobs,” she stressed.

“Another key point – and I know this may seem obvious but it doesn’t happen all the time – is identifying how you’re going to cascade the information through the organization,” says Courlas.

“Ensuring that the leadership is involved at the right time so they understand what’s going on, so they can support their people through the process, and so that they also understand if any of these changes are going to affect them personally – they need to know that before anything is communicated to the broader organization,” she continued.

“A cascading, waterfall approach is needed when communicating change to those impacted groups – starting with the leaders so that they understand their role in this overall change, if there is one for them, and how they can support it.”

Employers also have to make it clear exactly what support will be available to help affected employees through the change – “Understanding what lengths the organization will go to support impacted individuals is something that needs to be decided right up front so that it’s included in key communications, one-on-one messages, leaders’ guides, etc. Ensuring people are treated with respect, positioned for success and supported through the process are underlying guiding principles, that if followed can help mitigate significant issues,” stressed Courlas.

“We could be talking about reorganization, a new technology system, new locations or changing the nature of the work – but whatever it is, understanding how impacted employees will perceive the impact needs to be handled carefully because, among other implications, there is the ever increasing potential for reputational damage,” she told HRM.

“It’s so simple to go on Glassdoor to share experiences (positive and negative) or onto Twitter or Facebook  – we’re in an increasingly transparent environment so people don’t hesitate to share which can negatively impact the brand and image of the organization.”

Courlas also warned about the risks of employee dissatisfaction and disengagement particularly if people don’t understand or accept the rationale of the new program, aren’t effectively supported through the change, and/or they don’t have mechanisms through which to provide feedback and have their voices heard. 

Implementing a program – popular or unpopular – is being clear about answering the typical -- why, what, who, how and when. The key differentiator for successfully shaping the introduction of unpopular programs is to bring more empathy, courage and preparation to dealing with the implications at an individual level.

Soula Courlas will be joined by her colleague Robert Bolton - partner of KPMG's global HR centre of excellence - at the up coming HR Leaders Summit. The duo will be discussing the future of work in engaging session aimed at senior HR leaders.

For more information on the November event, or to purchase advance tickets, click here.

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