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September 09, 2008

Really Resilient...Or Really Nervous?

One way to extend your corporate branding internally is by handing out, free of charge, as an incentive gift, brown hyperventilation bags emblazoned with the company logo. I've heard there's a lot of anxiety in corporate America these days on account of rumors about the economy tanking. If you're at the top of the organizational hierarchy, you worry because you're not making your profit goals; if you're in the middle or bottom of the organization, you worry your job will be slashed in the pursuit of cost savings. So, in short, there's a good deal of nausea/butterflies-in-the-stomach in your cubicles and glass-walled offices.

It's hard to stay engaged in your company when you're so terribly nervous. The worst is leaving your workers dangling as to their employment fate. You've been taught it's pragmatically savvy to not tell employees whether they'll be fired until the last minute, keeping your plans about who's staying and going a closely held secret, but in addition (as I noted in a previous blog) to the inhumanity of that tactic, it leads to a generalized nervousness. Nobody can rest safe--even the workers you most want to retain--because the firings that take place appear arbitrary. What's worse, in some cases, those eliminated were liked and respected by peers. If you're lucky, those you get rid of will have been a nuisance to at least a few people. Along with the kindness of giving terminated workers advance warning so they can look for something new, it might be smart to let your workforce in on the "big picture," the strategy behind possible future layoffs. Understanding the thought process behind it may give your staffers a greater sense of control, and for those who apparently will be spared by your long-term approach, this new understanding will enable a sigh of relief.

When hard times hit, you also will have to decide which workers you want to expend effort and resources to retain, and how. One school of thought says to just concentrate on your highest performers when the going gets rough, but I favor a different tactic. My best guess about what would work best is giving a little less to a greater number of people. Instead of maintaining or boosting the bonuses of "top performers," spread the wealth across the organization by either maintaining salaries or giving modest raises to workers meeting their performance goals, whether or not they fit the classic definition of a "top performer."  My thought behind this is the importance of giving the widest spectrum of employees possible a sense that the company is doing well enough to invest in them, and wants to do so. You may be surprised at the continued anxiety of a "high potential" worker who is given a large raise or bonus himself but witnesses ongoing layoffs of colleagues and maybe even has to participate in the "streamlining" process by firing subordinates. Even though he's doing fine personally, he still may feel demoralized by the environment. Then, also, this approach helps avoid the snowball effect of hard times in which the company is doing poorly to start with, then starts cutting jobs and reducing wages or leaving them stagnant, thereby making the situation even worse by creating a workforce too hopeless to be productive. In other words, those "top performers," and, indeed, the whole company, profits by keeping the bottom and middle ranked workers engaged enough to do a good job.

What are you doing at your company to stem the nervous twitching? As far as I know, it still isn't legal to give workers complimentary bottles of Xanax, so I guess you'll have to find a way to soothe the anxious workers taking a few extra cigarette breaks or devouring a few more Hostess Cupcakes from the vending machine. Sedatives can do wonders, but you'd be surprised how well open communication with your employees works. Better yet, there's a chance your exchange with them won't put them to sleep.

Any thoughts on how to soothe the nerves of overwrought employees in a struggling economy?


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