Survivor Island

By Amy Polefrone, MPA, SPHR

We hear veiled optimism from economists who say that the markets are rebounding and that we are coming out of the recession. But I keep hearing business owners saying, “Then why doesn’t it feel like that? My business is still hurting!” We keep hearing about more job layoffs, more companies declaring bankruptcy, and tensions between Main Street and Wall Street.

Times are STILL tough for businesses of all sizes, and the challenges leave many businesses struggling to figure out how to hang on and make it through this recession. It sure makes it tough to be an employer these days! How can you, as employers, keep motivating employees who often feel like they are literally “hanging on” for dear life? These folks often are referred to as “workplace survivors”—so, what can YOU do as an employer to help these survivors?

First, understand that survivors are relieved and grateful that they still have their jobs, but they have very complex feelings right now. They are often burdened with guilt (“Why him and not me?”), residual fear (“Am I next?”) and added workload (feelings of having to do two jobs instead of one).

Here are some ideas for things that employers can do, from a human resources and business perspective, to help employees “survive” (and maybe be motivated and productive!) in tough business times, including the post-layoff stage:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! You MUST get in front of your employees and explain to them what has happened, why it has happened and what will happen going forward. I encourage you to have a team meeting (or if geographically spread out, a video conference, Webinar or a conference call) with ALL employees to explain what is going on. Your employees will appreciate it. EVERYONE hates not knowing. Get them in the know and they’ll appreciate it (even if you are honestly telling them, “I do not know!”).

  • Have individual meetings with employees. You need to talk with each employee individually to make sure that she understands her contribution to your company and how she can continue to help grow the business. This may be a great chance to realign job responsibilities, clarify expectations and maintain accountability. Also, you can continue to set and communicate business goals, clearly and visibly! Don’t give up on your business goals! Keep those goals in front of you, and everyone else. Keep your employees’ eyes on the prize—moving forward with business development.

  • On a Thursday or Friday afternoon, order pizza and let employees just vent. Don’t give it as an early dismissal day, but rather offer this as an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with your employees and get to know their concerns, questions, etc. Simply hang out and BE THERE. Build on this momentum to develop trust and to get ideas for business growth. First and foremost, listen to people’s concerns. If people ask you, “Should I be getting my resume in order?” answer honestly, “We ALL should always have our resumes brushed up, since we never know what could happen, but I’m confident that we can weather this storm by focusing on XYZ.” Treat people like the grown-ups that they are. They will respect you for it.

  • Avoid excessive negativity. Don’t let “Why bother?” negative attitudes take up residence in your company. Negativity can and does cause productivity to spiral downward, which then makes your business challenges all the more difficult. Don’t ignore honest concerns and fears about the future, but you should tackle head-on excessive negativity and defeatism. Avoid negative messages, such as, “We are in poor financial shape,” unless you really, truly are. The more you disparage your own company, the worse your employees will feel about working for you. Employees will follow your lead, so be careful what you say! You are the leader. And in this case, people WILL follow the leader. You are IT!

  • Don’t allow the company grapevine to go rampant. When you hear rumors, bring everyone back together and address them, even if it is to admit, “I don’t know what our next quarter will look like.” That is an answer. Channel uncertainty into a rallying opportunity to focus everyone’s attention on business development and growth.

  • Address the troublemaker head-on. If you know who is spreading ill, deal with that person immediately. This is not the time to let a disgruntled employee sour the environment. If Suzy continues to stir up trouble by saying things like, “I don’t know why they had to lay off John. They could have just furloughed everyone a day here and there,” this is your opportunity to talk with Suzy confidentially to explain why a layoff was a business necessity (without divulging private details, of course).

  • Encourage your employees to use company benefits. Employee assistance programs, wellness programs, Weight Watchers, etc. Encourage a healthy lifestyle in your employees—and take the lead in promoting wellness.

  • Re-examine your company benefits. Talk with your benefits broker to examine your company’s utilization of your plan. Are you offering TOO MUCH? TOO LITTLE? What are you getting for your money? What are your competitors offering? Find out what your employees want! These discussions can save your business thousands of dollars from a benefits and HR perspective.

  • Encourage employees to learn new business development skill sets. Spruce up PowerPoint skills, learn to set up their own Webinars, employ cool technologies like Constant Contact/email marketing, attend customer service seminars, etc. Reward and incentivize employees who have new business development ideas! Continue investing in your employees.

  • Keep your networking active! Continue YOUR personal involvement in your chambers of commerce, industry associations, Small Business Administration, county technology offices, regional tech councils, Rotary, Lions Club, BNI, etc. Keep your own business development and attitude positive. Expand your network to make your business grow. Not only will this networking keep YOU positive, but this positive energy also will carry over to your employees.

Yes, these are tough times, but maintaining your confidence, returning to basics and communicating with honesty and empathy will help you maintain the trust and confidence of your employees. Your employees ARE your business—continue to invest in them and they will help you grow your company.

© 2010, Amy Polefrone

Amy Polefrone MPA, SPHR

HR Strategy Group, LLC

or 410-505-8723

Amy Polefrone has more than 20 years of experience in human resources. She has specialized expertise in facilitating “tough conversations” between managers and employees.

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