Managing Amid Economic Uncertainty

When employees are distracted by looming foreclosures and fear of job loss, keep morale up by confronting their concerns directly

When employees are distracted by looming foreclosures and fear of job loss, keep morale up by confronting their concerns directly

During the Internet bust a few years ago, I had lunch with a corporate HR leader. His company, a telecommunications giant, was in trouble. Every week, more layoffs were announced. People who could find better jobs were leaving in droves.

I asked the HR fellow: "How are you dealing with employee morale?" "Oh, we don't think about morale," he chuckled. "We focus on Engagement with the Mission." I was astounded by his reply, and I could all but hear the capitalized "E" and "M" in the phrase. Lots of HR people talk about engagement, and they also talk about missions. These are good things to talk about when half the workforce isn't in fear of losing jobs at any moment. How does one get engaged with the organization's lofty mission when one is preoccupied with job security, the threat of missing a mortgage payment, or worse?

"Isn't it tough to rally the troops around the mission when business conditions are so challenging?" I asked. I had just met a marketing director from this man's company the night before at a networking event. "Yes, I took a job working for XYZ," she told me, mentioning her employer by name with a shudder. "Don't judge me for working there. I had to take the job. Any port in a storm."

Hollow Ring

That's how my lunchmate's company brand was being publicly trashed by its own new management hires. Yet he clung to the notion that Engagement with the Mission would prevail. "We just have to keep talking about it, to keep the Mission uppermost in employees' minds," he said.

My lunch partner was wrong in thinking that the most important issue then was Mission instead of morale, and the same holds true now. When employees are distracted by zooming foreclosure rates, the cost of fuel, the threat of job loss, and other real-life concerns, our corporate mission is the last thing they want to hear about. We're foolish if we don't respond to our teams' fears directly.

Like any issue that can suck time and mental energy away from our work, employees' economic concerns are an elephant in the room. Job One is to address those concerns forthrightly, and often. We can't guarantee our employees a job for life, or even for the next 12 months. What we can and must do is level with them, with as much detail as possible, about what's happening in our firms and what the future appears to hold. We need to talk about orders in the pipeline, the state of our customers' business, the state of our competitors. We need to address the impact of the financial industry's woes on our own business. If senior-leadership teams aren't convening this week to craft an internal communications strategy dealing with these top-of-mind and scary issues, they're deluding themselves.

When Basic Needs Are Threatened

People won't stick to their knitting when their own and their families' stability and future are at risk. They can't. They shouldn't. Maslow's famous pyramid shows us why. Next year's new product launch is fun and exciting to think about when one's housing, health care, nourishment, and other basic needs are well in hand. When a person is worried about his ability to take care of basic needs, his attention to lesser matters—the new product launch being one example—goes out the window. Who can blame him?

Frequent and relevant employee communication is the name of the game during challenging economic times. And outbound communication is just half the battle. The other half is responding.

For instance, employers who have been slow to accommodate employees' telecommuting requests should delay no more. All employers should be stretching their views of what constitutes a day's work right now, because fuel prices have increased employees' household expenses dramatically. If people can accomplish their work from home one day a week, this is the time to let them do it. If you've looked at the flex-time and flex-place concepts all summer without acting, there's no more time for delay.

Now is the time to listen to employees, and now is the time to act.

The Whole Truth

Nothing that we can invent to stimulate and reward employees—not a trip to Hawaii, not free flu shots, not even the promise of a hefty yearend bonus—can allay the fears of personal disruption or catastrophe that preoccupy our teams. No fun promotion, slogan, or contest that we dream up at a staff meeting will turn our teams' attention away from their instinctive fears for their own economic stability—nothing except plain, unvarnished truth.

Now's the time to open the kimono and share the company's plans for the next 12 or 18 months; now's the time to talk frankly about hard choices that must be made, about the leadership team's battle plan and the associated risks and opportunities. "Just keep working, and we'll let you know if anything changes" will not cut it, not if we want people focused on their work instead of their plummeting home value and mutual funds.

If ever there were a time to lose the corporate happy talk and be honest with employees, it's now.

Employers who speak to what's real for their employees—the stock market, the firm's fortunes, and the cost of getting through the day—will earn the privilege of talking about Engagement and Missions months down the road. Those who insist on sticking to the party line may look back and see their efforts to avoid tough conversations as an exercise in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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