As we've variously reported, UBS staff were made redundant in an a fashion that seemed at once callous and unfair this week. In London, hundreds of them turned up for work and were headed-off at the turnstiles and directed to meeting rooms populated by HR people. There, they were handed a copy of this letter informing them that they hadn't exactly been terminated, but that they weren't required for work and could stay at home on full pay until further notice. In the US, UBS compounded the horrors of the hurricane by allegedly calling its staff and telling them they didn't need to turn up for work - ever again.
Is this really HR best practice?
No, according to HR people.
However, UBS was clearly in a difficult spot.
"There are no perfect solutions," says Linda Jackson co-founder and director at coaching and outplacement firm 10 Eighty. "You have to protect the business. You also have to consider the people who are remaining. And you have to try and allow the people to depart with as much dignity as possible - always considering that they may work for you again in the future, or become a formidable competitor."
UBS appears to have fallen down on the last of these considerations. The UBS business was protected by preventing the soon-to-be-redundant staff from accessing their computers. The remaining UBS staff were spared the sight of distraught colleagues finding out their fates when they were already on the desks. But the unwanted staff were let go with minimal dignity. What can be worse than turning up to work only to find your services are no longer required?
Andrew Pullman, managing director of People Risk Solutions and a long-standing investment banking HR professional, suggests the better bet would have been to inform people at the end of a trading day that their services wouldn't be required in future. "You normally take people quietly aside and tell them that they are going to be let go. At that point, you switch of their systems," he says.
The sheer volume of unwanted staff appears to have been the issue at UBS. The bank is getting rid of 10,000 staff in total, of whom 3,000 are expected to go in London. On Tuesday evening, headhunters estimated that at least 500 front office staff had been turned away at Finsbury Avenue.
UBS's method of dispensing with its surplus staff is redolent of the late 1990s and early 2000s says one experienced city HR professional. Back then, it was normal for people to be shunted into a room and told they weren't required, or for hundreds of bankers to be called into an auditorium where they were handed different coloured letters indicating their employment status.
More recently, the thinking has become that it's inadvisable to gather too many redundant bankers in one room at the same time, say HR professionals.
"All it takes is for one person to get upset or angry and the emotion catches," says one. "I've seen a director being punched as he walked down the corridor after the statement was made," he adds.
"It's a high risk strategy gathering too many people in one room," confirms Pullman. "Redundancy is a difficult process - some people will get aggressive, some will be speechless, others will burst into tears. I've had some people who I thought would be really upset, but who shook me by the hand and said thank you," he adds.
Pullman was formerly in the Royal Artillery Regiment and can cope with a little fracas. "I've seen some very aggressive people, but I'm big enough and old enough to cope with it," he says.
Other banks planning mass UBS-style redundancies may want to add some muscle to their HR functions ahead of the event.