Employee communication in difficult economic times

Today’s most forward-thinking companies have made communicating with employees a number one priority. This is always critical, but takes on additional urgency during challenging economic times.

Employees play a key role in shaping public perception of your organization – who is more credible and has better access to the “inside scoop?” They can make or break your organization – their productivity levels, service attitudes toward customers, willingness to work as a team – the list goes on.

Perhaps most important, they serve as ambassadors for your organization. Your ability to keep them engaged and informed can make the difference between showing a positive face and a negative one.

To understand what’s on the minds and in the hearts of your employees, two-way communication systems are essential. Don’t just talk at employees – talk with them. Listen to their feedback.

There are a number of informal research techniques and tactics that prompt two-way communication in any economic environment. Focus groups, informal lunches, town hall meetings and call-in hotlines are a few of the tools that can be used to gather important information.

Once you’ve done the research, you’ll have a sense of your organizational climate – is it high anxiety? Low anxiety? Take into consideration the environment in which your organization is operating. Is the culture such that employees are used to constant change, as in a high-tech organization, or used to the long-term stability a governmental organization has traditionally offered? Are employees used to open, transparent communication, or a management team that keeps things “close to the vest?” Have there been layoffs and downsizings in your industry or related industries that are sparking a new level of anxiety?

When the news is bad

In a low-anxiety climate, focus the messages on productivity and performance. In healthy organizational climates, we’re hearing a lot about the concept of “invertising” and internal buzz-building campaigns that begin with the education of employees. These kinds of proactive steps encourage employees to act as positive ambassadors.

In a high-anxiety climate, focus on delivering the message in a way that keeps employees calm. Be a transparent organization that communicates and educates frequently and openly about what is being done to stay financially healthy. For example, many organizations have been focusing on the message of cutting expenses before jobs: the CEO of Starbucks took a giant salary cut, going from $1.2 million to less than $10,000 per year, while Motorola put a freeze on pension plans, in addition to cutting the CEO’s salary.

In a high-anxiety climate, there may be more of a need for additional programs, ranging from outplacement services to stress management workshops to addressing “survivor’s guilt” syndrome for workers who remain after the downsizing.

When the news is not good, and layoffs are inevitable, follow these guidelines to keep (or earn) the trust and respect of your employees:

• Create a cross-functional team including your HR, legal and communications professionals. You’ll need all of their perspectives.

• Script employee notification, along with probable questions and answers, so everyone in the organization is speaking with one voice.

• Coordinate internal and external layoff announcements so employees aren’t learning about it first from the media.

• Monitor traditional and social media so you’ll know what’s being said and what misperceptions might need correcting.

• High-level leadership visibility is key. Constant communication from senior management, supported by supervisor communication is important. Resist the temptation to run and hide.

• Treat severed employees fairly, with ample notice, outplacement assistance, severance packages, etc.

• Honest, transparent communication always. Provide the rationale and the facts leading to the decision. Don’t say it’s the only layoff if it isn’t.

• Don’t forget the survivors. Support them. Allow them time to mourn for lost colleagues … but don’t let them wallow.

Robin Schell is senior counsel and partner for Exeter-based Jackson Jackson & Wagner, a behavioral public relations and management consulting firm. She can be contacted at 603-770-3607.