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On Being Human in HR: When Things Fall Apart

Posted By Megan Leatherman, Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How would you handle getting the news that your organization was no longer financially solvent and would be handed over to a third party in two weeks?

This third party, a “receiver,” won’t allow you to communicate directly with your customers, it isn’t clear whether or not your employees would get paid on time, and overnight your company culture would go from a friendly, team-oriented atmosphere to a bureaucratic hierarchy.

This is what Cheryl Wunder had to manage as the Director of People & Culture at Oregon’s Health CO-OP.

Cheryl is now the Employee Engagement Manager at Ecova, but I wanted to learn more about her previous experience leading people through a dissolution, because it’s a unique and often treacherous place to be in, especially for folks in Human Resources.

Oregon’s Health CO-OP (OHC) was a new member and mission-driven health plan that endeavored to reshape how people interacted with their health insurance. Unfortunately, with its razor-thin margins and high costs, the healthcare industry was unfriendly to co-ops like OHC, and in July 2016, the leadership team abruptly found out that it couldn’t stay liquid and would immediately be taken over by the State of Oregon.

“There were tears...we all cried,” Cheryl said, and while it wasn’t a huge shock to their employees, the finality of it was still hard to swallow.

Before OHC went into voluntary receivership, it was a nimble, flat organization of about 50 employees. “We were basically like a startup,” Cheryl says. Once they went into receivership, however, the State’s contractor in charge of the receivership took control of the website, the books, social media accounts, and every other critical piece of the organization. Almost overnight, “the executive team no longer had any power, and we had to be incredibly careful with any communications externally or internally.”

When I asked Cheryl why she decided to stay on, she said that her primary focus was “on getting the employees through it. I wanted to make sure that during the layoffs, [employees] had a good, positive exit...I wanted them to feel my presence.”

To help support employees through this challenging time, Cheryl and the team focused on things like potlucks, brown bag lunches where everyone could sit and talk, and going on walks. Being able to focus on supporting the employees “actually helped get me through,” she says, but she acknowledges that it still took a toll on her physically and emotionally.

What struck me most about listening to Cheryl talk about the heaviness associated with OHC’s abrupt end was how many resources she drew upon personally and professionally in the midst of it.

By the end of our conversation, the message became clear: it’s imperative that we all prioritize and shore up the things that support us in our daily lives, because we’ll need them when we inevitably encounter major change and loss.

Cheryl is very clear about what got her through this experience, and they aren’t things we can just go get off the shelf. They’re things like: a job that was in alignment with her values, an organization with a mission she believed in, a functional leadership team, a robust network, regular self-care practices, and a firm grasp on who she is.

Without investing in these things ahead of time, her response to the receivership would probably have been a lot different. Connecting deeply to her values and to her team “helped me know that I would do it over again and like it wasn’t a mistake.”

If you found out that your organization would almost immediately dissolve, would you have the practices in place and the support you needed to lean on? Many of us take things like meaningful professional relationships and regular self-care for granted until we realize we don’t have them.

This doesn’t mean we can’t respond to crisis effectively, but when other members of the organization are looking to us for help navigating a scary and unpredictable time, it’s extra important for us to be well-equipped.

When I asked Cheryl what she’d recommend to someone facing the end of an organization, there were a few clear themes:

  1. “Reach out to your network quickly. Find others who’ve been through this.” Get their checklists, make your own, and wrap your head around all of the functional to-dos ahead of you.

  2. “Show yourself grace.” There will be grief, confusion, and many other emotions that come up for you too, so give yourself lots of room to process. “You’re gonna pick up the heaviness,” she says. So get out of the office, cut back your hours, take walks, and just breathe. Also: “it’s okay to make mistakes.”

  3. It’s also okay to jump ship! According to Cheryl, it’s “okay not to stay the distance and leave right away.” If you don’t feel like you can stay and be a positive presence, give yourself permission to move on.

  4. Recognize that people are going to react “in weird ways,” but continue to show understanding. Cheryl advocated hard for the continuance of the organization’s EAP services, which she and many others tapped into during the transition.

Finally and most importantly, Cheryl recommends that all of us, even if we don’t foresee facing something like this in the future, “know what you want out of this whole thing called ‘career.’” Cheryl knew upfront that she values things like the ability to take risks, create meaning, and have an impact on the people she works with, so staying on during OHC’s receivership was aligned for her. For someone else with different values, it may not make sense.The more self-awareness we can cultivate ahead of time, the better off we’ll be when crisis inevitably comes, whether it’s in our personal lives or in the organizations we serve.

Tags:  acquisitions  advice  leadership  mergers 

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