Communicating change in corporate “families”


When you are part of a family, you don't really expect to turn your back and find that everyone in the family has changed or decided to shun you while you're away (unless you're a Jehovah's Witness, maybe). Lately I have been thinking a lot about companies that profess to be "like a big family" and stress the uniqueness of their family atmosphere, the company culture that defies the normal corporation. While no company, especially large multinationals, is immune to financial pressure and the need to change, the field of change communications exists precisely to soften the blow of what can be a catastrophic change to employees' lives (even if it is barely the blink of an eye for an employer).

In a previous company, there was a sort of "we take care of each other" feeling that permeated it; this eroded over time. This is not to say that the company became a callous, unfeeling monster – but as the company grew and its aims became more directly financial, things did become more ruthless. In one sweeping "right sizing" process (as the "downsizing"/mass layoffs were euphemistically called), the company at least took the time to have a company-wide meeting before making any changes, communicated that changes were afoot and that everything was under re-evaluation. Everyone was asked to review their employee information so that, should their current job be threatened, maybe there could be another role suited to them (based on information provided in the profile). Even if this had been just a show, it still comforted people to think they were being looked after – that maybe they still had a place in the changing organization (and that if they didn't, they would still be taken care of with a long-term severance package and career placement counseling). Sure, there were people they clearly wanted to get rid of but employment law in Norway is such that you can't just fire someone. Organizational restructuring and budgetary constraints are ways around the law. Even then, the company made at least a surface-level effort to seem like they were attempting to accommodate everyone (e.g., offering people they hoped to get rid of new positions that they were almost 100 percent sure those individuals would not accept — insulting, maybe, but at least the "show" played out to the end and made everyone involved look like they cared about the outcome).

When the next reorg came, there was none of the posturing, none of the "show pony on display" actions. The "family feel" had disappeared (it actually already had, dramatically, before the layoffs). The company, its aims and what it stood for (in some ways) had also changed. It had made the jump on a corporate level from shiftless teenager to responsible adult (at least as far as the stock market is concerned).

None of this is new or a surprise to anyone who has ever worked in a for-profit organization.

In a more recent employment experience, the company is quite vocal about its "family" culture. Yet, in its recent organizational changes, the lack of transparency and secretive approach (almost misleading some of the people the changes would affect, right up until the last minute) did not strike me as familial in the least. When a company blows its own horn constantly about this culture, it feels all the more disingenuous when it fails completely to live up to its own credo. Amidst all the changes, the fundamental ability to communicate change – first on a more sensitive, individual level and then on a larger-scale, organizational level would make a difference.

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