Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Don't Clam Up in Scary Times

In times of economic crisis, the more communication from leadership, the better

American workers are worried about the economy and it’s affecting their productivity, according to a survey by work-life services provider Workplace Options. Half of those polled said they are stressed out because of financial concerns and 48 percent said their worries are getting in the way of work. What does this mean for attorneys representing business owners? Now is the opportunity to take the position of "Counselor" seriously to not only protect your client's future profitability but also show how much their business means to you and your Firm.

Many companies clam up during difficult times for a variety of reasons. Many corporate lawyers advise against saying anything that might be used in a lawsuit (a reasonable concern, yet not insurmountable). Leaders feel they have nothing new to say (which might be true, but is no reason to be silent). Leaders fear communicating about the financial crisis will cause employees to focus on it instead of work (news flash: they’re focusing on the crisis whether or not business leaders talk about it).

What should business leaders say to employees and how should they say it? Here are some truisms that bear repeating.

  • Say something. To ignore the obvious anxiety that employees are feeling is to show a lack of leadership, not to mention lack of a backbone. Employees are looking to management for something—anything—that indicates management is not in denial about the tough times. The more hard-nosed business leaders might scoff at the idea of an “I feel your pain” message, but such communication goes a long way toward minimizing the employee angst.
  • Say it with sincerity. In whatever communications business leaders send to employees, now is no time for corporate jargon and platitudes. Ditch the discussion about the company’s “core competencies” and “values in action.” Employees are more likely to get the message about company values through leaders’ actions during difficult times than through paragraph after paragraph of corporate speak. Now is the time for sincerity and authenticity.

Consider counseling your clients to communicate a message from the CEO like this: “I know the financial crisis has touched each one of you in very personal ways. These are troubling times, but let me tell you what our company is doing to weather the storm.” And then …

  • Counsel your client to be as specific as possible. Communicate the company’s plan for getting through the difficult period, even if the news is bad. This is an opportunity to educate employees about the inner workings of the company. Teach them how the company’s treasury works. Talk about its investor relations strategy. Show them how effective business planning helps organizations prepare for economic downturns. Share specific information about how the company as a whole—and how individual employees—can take costs out of the business in order to deal with tight credit markets. People can deal with bad news if the reasons behind it are explained to them.
  • Counsel your client to communicate frequently. Don’t assume employees “get the message” about the current economic crisis after a single communication activity. Business leaders must commit to providing frequent updates about the status of the company’s financial health, the impact of the economic crisis on the industry, how employees’ retirement and pension funds are affected, and how the company is responding to its customers’ and investors’ concerns, among other things. Not only is repetition necessary for employees to internalize messages, but the very act of communicating says management won’t run and hide when the going gets tough.
  • Counsel your client to provide opportunities for two-way communication. Business leaders should invite employees’ questions, concerns and suggestions during difficult times. Employees have a huge stake in the well-being of the company and they want to see it succeed. Questions and comments are the signs of an engaged work force, so leaders should seize that gift and do something with it. Create question or suggestion boxes, either physical or virtual. Start a blog in which employees can discuss and ask questions about the impact of the Wall Street crisis on the company. Hold open forums to let workers vent—and yes, it’s OK to let folks vent. It actually can be cathartic. Employees are going to talk about their worries whether the company provides a venue or not. Why not harness that dialogue and direct it toward positive outcomes?

The bottom-line impact of the financial crisis on many companies may not yet be apparent, but the bottom-line need for communication has never been more obvious. Employees need, want and deserve communication from company leaders right now. Without it, they will waste their time in the hallways, at water coolers and online trying to find answers to their questions. Will business leaders respond with real leadership or will they retreat to their executive suites and contribute to the anxiety that exists on shop floors and in cubicles everywhere?

This post courtesy of: Robert J. Holland

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