Come clean when lay offs are in the air

If you are about to wield the axe, it is best to come clean about it. And if you're not, it is also best to allay your workers' fears.

If you are about to wield the axe, it is best to come clean about it. And if you’re not, it is also best to allay your workers’ fears.

Fortunately, this seems to be the way in New Zealand, at least by those contacted by Computerworld.

Our US stablemate, Infoworld, recently reported that office gossip is one of the great drivers (and destabilisers) of morale and motivation, compounding the stress caused by almost, daily layoffs.

As the American IT world reels from ever more redundancies, and a few staff get the chop in New Zealand, there is a flow-on effect: actual or projected workforce reductions can be very troubling for both managers and staff.

Workplace psychologist James Osterhaus says one company manager even told him that anxiety surrounding possible layoffs was affecting his own performance. And bosses also say that even when layoffs are just rumoured, the perception of what might happen is enough to make workers tired, depressed and demoralised.

Managers are not trained counsellors, but part of their job is to keep staff motivated and on track. And that means recognising symptoms and trying to get to the root of problems, which may stem as much from bad communication as from the reality of slash and burn.

Cynically speaking, says Osterhaus, if workers don’t have the full story their minds tend to fill the gaps for them, which raises the risk of them jumping to the wrong conclusions — which is often worse than the company’s actual situation.

Guessing “the truth” causes gossip to become rampant, he says. As a result, “employees are likely to lose faith in the company and in their managers. They might think that ‘management’ is not looking out for their best interests.”

This, he says, leads to increased cynicism among employees, which affects company morale and can lead to a talent drain, when employees leave who were not targeted for layoffs.

When dealing with the buzz of possible layoffs or their aftermath, managers need to “pace” the rumour mill. They should speak openly with staff about the stress and cynicism that layoff gossip can cause.

Osterhaus says managers should acknowledge workplace stress and say things like “I know you are really anxious now about where this organisation is going”, or “I understand that you are mourning colleagues who were laid off”.

Such actions can help rebuild the trust between managers and staff, but it is not enough. Osterhaus advises managers not to protect employees by shielding them from bad news as this will only encourage further speculation, cynicism and unexpected attrition. Instead, managers should try to keep employees up to date about the organisation’s situation, wherever possible.

“Managers need to be honest and pass along information to employees. Middle managers should also encourage senior managers to do the same,” Osterhaus says.

IBM New Zealand and reservations systems trainer Sabre Pacific confirm a need for openness, adding it is also employment law in New Zealand.

Sabre has both an informal and informal communications line, with a HR department and a “grapevine” which allows anonymous questions to be asked of senior executives.

New Zealand general manager David Allen says managers need to remember their own reactions and feelings and deal with those first, otherwise they cannot do their jobs properly. “Involve the staff and look for potential business solutions that make sense. If all else fails, it’s the position that’s redundant, not the person. The sign of a good company is that it spends as much time counselling and helping with exit programmes as it does on the previous activities,” Allen says.

IBM HR manager Sarah Brown says her staff are given as much information as possible, and when IBM cannot tell them something it will give a reason.

She says when there is talk of job cuts in the company, managers are encouraged to “tell the facts” to those concerned. When jobs are going, a plan is developed to allow an approriate timeline and ensure clear communication.

Brown agrees with Osterhaus and gives the following advice to managers who may face redundancy rumours, real or otherwise: “Tell your people what is going on. And if nothing is going on, tell them that, too. If your employees have confidence in you and that you will tell them what is going on, they will be less anxious and distracted.

“People will always make up something when they don’t have the information, and generally this will be worse than the truth. It is much more useful to keep them well informed so they can make valid decisions for themselves and so productivity isn’t compromised,” she says.

Darren Greenwood is Computerworld’s HR reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags IBMcareers

More about IBM AustraliaSabre Corp

Show Comments
[]