By Rachel Hayman.

“Who signs the last leaving card?” A jocular question during an otherwise serious discussion at the January 2015 meeting of the Action Learning Set on Exit Strategies  around duty of care for individuals in headquarters, country offices and amongst partners during exit processes. EveryChild holds leaving parties as their staff numbers diminish in line with planned exits,[1]and we agreed that addressing the psychological and personal pressures of playing “the graveyard role” (the term used to describe the team dealing with exit at WWF-UK) was a key aspect of developing exit strategies.

The existing literature on exit strategies is very slim on this topic. A passing reference may be made to communication with staff, notice periods, incentive payments and legislation. But there is not a lot of solid guidance available (the GrantCraft report aimed at supporting funders who are pulling out provides a bit more reflection).

Building on presentations from WWF-UK and EveryChild, we pulled together some tips for other organisations designing exit strategies:

‘Exit’ by Fabio Sola Penna via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licensing.

 1. Supporting the managers

Human resources departments in NGOs are generally small and their role is to advise managers, ensure that due process is being observed, and offer training and services to staff. It is the managers who are the main contact point for staff, so managers need to be equipped to support the emotional well-being of staff facing change because of exit processes. But managers may themselves be at risk, so will require support.

Some suggestions:

  • Provide adequate guidance and training for managers well ahead of time
  • Provide emotional support, including resilience and stress management training
  • Remember that managers will be balancing staff changes as well as delivering on programmes that are coming to an end

 2.      Balancing continuity and change in staff

Is there a perfect mix of old hands and new blood during exit processes?

WWF-UK set up a special unit with staff on fixed-term contracts to see through recent exits. New people had a clear goal and enthusiasm, and balanced unhappiness and demotivation amongst existing staff.

EveryChild, however, were concerned with maintaining continuity so that institutional memory, contextual knowledge, and relationships of trust continued through the transition process. Turnover in the UK office was unsettling for country offices. Although many of the programme managers overseeing this process were relatively new, they had been in post long enough to have sufficiently fresh eyes, but had also built relationships with staff and partners and had a good understanding of programmes before the exit process began.

Organisations need to decide whether they want to invest in incentivising staff to stay throughout the exit process, for example by offering enhanced redundancy packages or other forms of incentive.

 3.      Risk assessments: managing difficult people

Grievances can bubble to the surface during times of change. People who are passionate about what they do may be disruptive during the exit period, particularly if they fundamentally disagree with the decisions being made.

A good risk assessment, proactive communication policy (internal and external), and establishing an independent complaints procedures are some suggested ways to head off problems.

 4.      Supporting staff: legal requirements and going the extra mile

Knowing the legislation on redundancy and redeployment in the different country contexts where staff jobs may be at risk is an obvious first point. But do you just do what is required, or something more?

Mechanisms used by ALS members at HQ and country levels include:

  • Robust consultation processes with staff
  • Career development support: offering training opportunities, the opportunity to move into new/more senior roles, participation in meetings or conferences, access to mentoring, CV writing and interview skills
  • Redeployment options, including trial periods in other roles
  • Flexible working hours to retain staff while allowing them to explore future options
  • Redundancy packages, which might include incentive payments to stay through the transition process
  • Non-financial incentives for country staff (books, computer equipment when offices close)
  • Focusing on staff wellbeing and staff responsibility for their own wellbeing (the CUSP framework was a recommended tool)
  • Regular staff satisfaction surveys and acting on feedback

To maintain staff trust, uncertainty needs to be minimised. An overlong consultation period can sometimes undermine, rather than build trust. EveryChild’s policy of ‘no surprises’  and transparency about exit is perhaps a useful way to think about this.

5.      Responsibility for partner staff

What responsibility does an exiting INGO have for the staff of partners if the exit process jeopardises their jobs? Where does the line fall between legal responsibilities and moral obligation?

In earlier meetings we discussed principles underpinning exit, and relationships with partners and capacity building. Good communication with partners and country offices around mutual responsibilities, expectations and commitments relative to staff needs to be part of a responsible exit strategy.

‘Share and explore’ by Denise Carbonell via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons licensing.

Some suggestions for support include:

  • Based on knowledge of local legislation for staff, decide where additional technical support might be required
  • Build capacity on staff management as well as organisational change processes
  • Explore opportunities to help staff and volunteers to move into new jobs, including providing training
  • Transfer assets to partners in-country
  • Favour the personal touch through visits from CEOs or directors to country offices or partners

6.      Celebrate success, don’t drown sorrows

Maintaining motivation and morale amongst staff is one of the biggest challenges. Staff need to buy into the future vision that necessitates the project, programme or country exit. A strong message emerging from our meeting was the need to nurture a positive dynamic.

Some ideas:

  •  Celebrate the contributions of staff rather than bemoaning their departure
  • Present the delivery of a successful exit process as a skills-building opportunity (skills which will always be needed in the sector), and a chance for personal growth
  • Get trustees to approve a special leaving fund, so that staff are not continuously expected to contribute to leaving presents.

 Concluding thoughts

The discussion reinforced two issues that have emerged at each ALS meeting:

  • You need to invest in the exit process; staff care during exit may require additional resources
  • Leadership from senior staff and trustees is essential to motivate staff and provide additional support

The ALS members all seem able to come at this question with caring and compassion, often going beyond statutory requirements to support staff caught up in the exit process. Many NGOs dealing with exit might not have such flexibility, just as partners dealing with reduction in funds may not. It would be interesting to explore how experiences of staff care differ in organisations for whom exit is about crisis management rather than strategic choice.

Finally a question: what learning about exit do staff take with them into their next job? Do they build on their knowledge to help develop responsible exit strategies, or leave it behind them in the excitement of a new role?