Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old investment bank choked by the credit crisis and falling real estate values, filed for Chapter 11 protection in the biggest bankruptcy filing ever on Monday, putting its 25,000 employees worldwide on the unemployment lines or waiting for a selloff to another company. Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing allows a company to restructure its debt and contracts. The restructuring process has many impacts on employees including the following:
- All equity-based compensation may be worthless. Employee stock options, ESOP holdings, Stock Appreciation Rights and other compensation and incentives tied to the value of the company’s stock may have no value or minimal value once the company emerges from bankruptcy. Lehman Brothers employees owned a large share of the company through its ESOP.
- Company 401k matches made in company stock may also be worthless. Employees can take a big hit to their retirement accounts when the company matches 401k contributions with its own stock.
- Employment and union contracts may be voidable.
- Employees may lose their jobs through downsizing and reorganization of the company.
- Remaining employees may be poached by competitors or leave because of the uncertainty created by the bankruptcy.
Given the uncertainty created by a bankruptcy filing, Human Resources must communicate with employees concerning their future with the company. Matthew Angello is Founder and Principal at Bright Tree Consulting Group (www.brighttreecg.com) a leadership coaching and consulting company located in Lancaster, PA. Matt has a wealth of experience in the strategic importance of communication and his commentary is as follows:
Having experienced leading an organization through Chapter 11 when I was the head of HR for Armstrong World Industries, I can personally attest to the power of regular and strategic communication with employees. In my current practice, I coach CEOs and other senior executives of the importance of communication, even to the extent that I call them the CCO (Chief Communication Officer).
In bankruptcy, the communication “ante is upped” by an order of magnitude. Even in normal business conditions, an information vacuum leads employees to “fill in the blanks” regarding the direction and vitality of the business, leading to loss of focus and compromised results. In bankruptcy, because the stakes are so high, information voids take on a more insidious nature as the workforce becomes fixated on the “rumor du jour” as opposed to those activities that are necessary to drive results (and ultimately facilitate the best outcome for all stakeholders).
Like any other successful aspect of the business, communication (especially during bankruptcy) must be strategic, planned, targeted and implemented. Informal channels cannot be relied upon during bankruptcy because the specific and technical content of the communication is vitally important. Put a plan together that includes regular written updates to employees, postings on the company intra-net (if you have one), and most importantly, regular briefings from the CEO (face to face or video presentations). The strategic communication plan should govern the frequency of the various forms of communication. I strongly advise that no more than a one-month interval between formal written communication and three months between all employee meetings. Even if there is little “new news” to report, these tools will be highly effective at blunting the “mis-information superhighway” that is prone to develop in a company in financial distress.