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Collective Memory and its Place in Work

On the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the Acts of Remembrance that have taken place across the UK, the Commonwealth and the world have been particularly moving this year. The beautiful display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, and the shower of paper poppies at Westminster Abbey are just two of the most discussed. Like many other businesses the Russell HR office fell silent at 11am on 11th November to remember and pay its respects to the dead. The silence gave us pause for thought over some of the most terrible chapters in world history, but it also reminded us of the reasons for that conflict, and of the dreadful conditions and carnage people were prepared to go through to defend their friends, their family and their homelands.

Remembering is important for society, not least so we can learn the lessons that history can teach us. Collective memory refers to the shared pool of information held in the memories of two or more members of a group. The concept of collective memory appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century. It can be shared, passed on and constructed by groups both small (e.g., a board of directors) and large (e.g. nation’s culture).

As society becomes more culturally diverse, collective memory like this can cause difficulties just as it can in companies. The decision to remember the fallen and to wear a poppy is an individual decision, not an absolute requirement. While more people than ever bought and wore their poppies this year, some see the Act of Remembrance as a way of justifying continued war and resent it.

The Act of Remembrance is a national and largely neutral act, remembering service personnel of all nationalities, religions and gender. No-one should be penalised for their beliefs in the workplace or elsewhere, and individual opinions should be considered along with those of the majority.

The workplace evolves quickly these days. While change can come about for very positive reasons, it’s often challenging, even painful for those involved. For example, in HR we often come across ‘survivor syndrome’ after a reorganisation has taken effect. Employees become nervous as soon as the word ‘reorganisation’ is mentioned, and the subsequent uncertainty puts everyone on edge – particularly if there has been a clear decline in business as it probably signals job losses. As it becomes clear who is leaving, those who stay at the company can often suffer from a number of concerns: They feel sympathy for their departing colleagues, and ask: Why were we spared? Why shouldn’t we have lost our jobs too? How long will we be kept on? When will the next disaster be? Memories linger and if the process is handled poorly or unsympathetically, it will become an unpleasant collective memory which may permanently affect workers.

These concerns can have a serious impact on morale in the workplace, and it is vital that any reorganisation process includes measures to take account of this. Those who stay have to be confident that they were kept on for a reason, that they are valued, and that the business has a clear and realistic strategy for going forward with them. We also want them to be confident that those who left the business were treated fairly, so if it does come to it the survivors could expect to be treated equally fairly in a future reorganisation. This also applies to external PR, as recruitment could become difficult if negative publicity gets out over how the company treats its employees.

Collective memory affects many organisations. Significant events trigger such memories. so manage any major organisational changes with a plan.

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