Crisis and the Workforce

Transparency, empathy and leading by example is what works in bad times - not offsites or layoffs

It is human behaviour, in boom times, that employees across organisations are up to taking risks because they entail rewards, recognition and opportunities to grow in their careers. This is not the case when an economic crisis hits an industry, with its cascading negative effect on organisations and their staff. Then, the focus shifts to the lower end of Maslows hierarchy, as the workforce is enveloped in worries around retaining their jobs and meeting their basic needs, rather than being motivated to absorb risks and challenges.

Transparency Pays
It goes without saying that, when uncertainty prevails in an organisation, there is huge interest in, and pressure to know the facts. People in general, and employees in particular, respect employers who display transparency and predictability in such times. I know of companies where employees have worked without a salary for months because the management explained why they could not pay and asked that workers bear with them while they figured out a solution.

Empathy and Trust
Empathy and trust are the two critical factors during a crisis. The workforce is mature enough to know that there might be bad news, but if they firmly believe that management is going to handle the situation in a positive way, there is less restlessness. Empathising with the workforce and being straightforward in communicating the reality and its possible solutions, are the best ways to gain their trust. In smaller companies, Id recommend programmes like brown-bag lunches where managers informally join teams for lunch, or town halls with the CEOs.

Lead by Example
A crisis is a time to lead by example. CEOs cannot pay themselves massive bonuses while expecting employees to take cuts. People work best when they understand the big picture; when they feel they are contributing to something larger than themselves. Companies often respond to a critical challenge by organising an offsite. These have little or no lasting value, and a company would be better off investing in communication tools and in true ownership tools such as ESOPs, Employee Share Option Plans, and profit-sharing. Newer tools like Yammer, Twitter and YouTube can help facilitate this communication

Hire & Fire Not an Option
If the company believes that it is a transactional relationship and that people can be hired and fired at will, then it is wrong to expect loyalty.

Management should facilitate networking and engagement by allowing staff to access social tools within the corporation. I would suggest they evaluate tools such as Yammer, Jive, Salesforce Chatter and IBM Connections. These are social media tools designed for corporates which protect data while encouraging collaboration.

Jessie Paul is CEO, Paul Writer Strategic Services.

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