In December 2013, Holden announced it would no longer be manufacturing in Australia, with approximately 3000 jobs being cut. It’s fair to say that the HR team have had their work cut out for them of late. Holden’s executive director of human resources, Ashley Winnett CAHRI, spoke to HRM online.
The HR challenges for Holden aren’t easing anytime soon, yet Ashley Winnett does not appear daunted by the tasks that lie ahead – preparing the company’s manufacturing workforce for life after Holden, while keeping that same workforce motivated and productive for the next three years.
Holden has also made some awkward gaffs along the way that haven’t made things sit any more comfortably. Most notable was the ill-timed ‘here to stay’ advertising campaign launched just weeks after employees were informed of the future direction. The campaign was intended to highlight that the company would continue selling cars in Australia, despite the fact they will be made overseas, yet criticism was drawn over the questionable timing and insensitive language so soon after the December announcement.
But rather than being defensive, Winnett is genuinely passionate about presenting initiatives to assist displaced employees and transition people into a future where Holden in Australia will be a predominantly sales-based company.
Being the bearer of bad news
“It’s hard to tell 3100 people that in three years’ time they won’t have employment,” says Winnett, reflecting on the December 2013 announcement.
“In the past there have been a number of leaks; stuff gets into the media. It’s not uncommon [in Adelaide, where Holden’s main factory is] to look outside the window and see a broadcast van sitting on the lawn. None of that happened. What that enabled our people to do is essentially hear the news, leave the site, go home and tell their families,” says Winnett.
The day following the announcement, Winnett arranged to sit down with then managing director, Mike Devereux, and small groups of employees to talk through the decision and to field employee questions, giving people the opportunity to have their say.
When reflecting on the experience of having to break the news, he says, “overall there was nothing I would do differently.”
Preparing a transition plan
Holden recognises that its critical areas of regard are managing mass redundancies, operating against a transitional time period that extends over three years and maintaining motivation in a transient workplace.
“We have a workforce of around about 3100 people and last year most of them found out that in three years’ time they would no longer have ongoing employment. So how do you continue to motivate and engage quite a large number of people, including our own [HR] team members, through that transition? That’s what we were focusing on in the early part of the year,” he says.
Providing a series of tools to facilitate open and ongoing communication between management and employees is important to Winnett.
Among other communication outlets, Holden also runs twice-weekly ‘diagonal slices’ (small group meetings) with the purpose of finding out what’s on employees’ minds, along with ‘town hall meetings’ where questions are answered in an open forum, often attracting hundreds of employees.
The need to maintain talent
With approximately 500 employees continuing on after 2017, part of the transition plan is also ensuring there’s a strategy to retain talented people.
“All of our critical talent, in our key jobs, have had a conversation outlining that they’re critical and important to the business and that we need them up until a particular point or beyond into the new national sales company.”
Winnett also cites an increased focus on employee engagement, with all staff encouraged to provide suggestions that could boost staff morale.
“We’re doing it at a functional level, so while HR will provide the tools to the business, we leave it up to each functional leader to determine what’s appropriate for their group.”
Looking to the future
Winnett explains that Holden has a program in place to provide real-world mechanisms to assist and support displaced employees.
“We’ve been running simple workshops like resume building, how to use LinkedIn, how to find a job in the new economy and social networking,” he says.
The HR team is also going through a process of identifying where the future jobs will be, working with state and federal governments. And after the dust settles, Holden still wants people to be proud of coming to work.
“We want to be a number one employer and that’s our vision between now and 2020, and beyond,” says Winnett.
“I’ll be tasked, along with the rest of the leadership group, to design a business that achieves that objective; so we have number one in sales, number one in service, number one in customer satisfaction and, most importantly, number one from an employee perspective.”