It can be tempting, when faced with a threat to your business, to retreat to the sanctuary of your office with a bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver. But no matter how bad you’re feeling yourself, your staff will be feeling worse. Like children whose parents are going through a divorce, they’ll know something is wrong, but won’t know any details, and may very well imagine the worst. If allowed to go unchecked these feelings could lead to a company-wide sense of dread which could eventually cripple the business, regardless of how bad the situation actually is. But there are steps managers can take to keep staff on board and engaged.
As with dealing with external PR, so it goes with internal problems: you need to keep your staff informed. A lack of accurate information allows room for speculation, which is how damaging rumours are started. Not only should managers outline the problems that are facing the firm, but they should also make themselves available to answer any follow-up questions from staff. If employees are reassured that not only are you communicating but are also listening, they are less likely to use company time to polish their CVs and start ringing round looking for alternative work.
Don’t be afraid of any feedback from the workforce, either. You never know: that unassuming clerk in the accounts department may have a killer idea for how the company can recover, or the receptionist may know of suppliers who are cheaper than the ones currently used. The best ideas can come from the strangest places. Make sure that staff know that any suggestions they make will be considered.
It may seem difficult, but it is also important to remain positive. Your employees will notice if all of the managers have been placed on suicide watch and are consulting their spiritual advisers. You don’t necessarily have to lie; admit that times are tough, but present the current troubles as a challenge, rather than an insurmountable obstacle. Managers are supposed to lead; set an example by facing the challenge head-on, rather than descending into misery.
Remember that you hired your staff because they are intelligent people who have come this far in life through their own gumption. When they’re not working for you, they have lives of their own. Some of them may not be supporting just their immediate family, but will also be paying school fees and medical bills for other relatives, and they will not appreciate you messing around with their salary. Keep business and cheques ticking along as usual, and don’t for a moment think of delaying payments unless you want to alienate each and every employee and have them curse you and all future generations of your family.
Finally, if downsizing or redundancies are on the cards, it’s best to ask for volunteers, rather than bringing the axe down on unsuspecting heads. Some staff may already have been thinking about looking for pastures new, or cutting back on their commitments before officially retiring. It is essential, however, that you adhere to all relevant employment legislation. It is far more expensive to fight a claim for unfair dismissal than it is to ensure that everyone has been treated fairly.
Hopefully, it won’t come to that. The business environment is cyclical and just as surely as the sun rises and sets, so there will be good times and bad times. If you can take steps to keep staff morale up during the difficult periods, you will find them much more amenable to any changes you make once on the good times reappear.
[Image by Ferdinand Reus]