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1309 PD: Good human resource management in bad times

Bernard L. Erven Published on 25 August 2009

Editor's note: The following is the last of two articles. In the August 11 issue of Progressive Dairyman, Bernard Erven explained the challenges and fears managers face during difficult times.

The following is a continuation of his suggestions for management practices that will help employees and management keep a healthy relationship.
  • Continue to reward high-quality employee performance.

The rewards can be in forms other than pay raises. In fact, during bad times there may be no raises or even pay decreases for both management and nonmanagement personnel. Knowing what each employee will appreciate and consider as a reward is critical. One employee may appreciate greater flexibility in scheduling work hours while another will appreciate his supervisor giving up her two tickets to the football game. Verbal and written recognition of the sacrifices that employees are making during the bad times can be among the most important nonmonetary rewards.

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  • Honor previous commitments

Canceling the commitment to an employee for two weeks of unpaid vacation time so that she can visit her brother in Washington, D.C., can have a significant negative impact on her and her co-workers’ morale. Unless the employee volunteers to give up her promised unpaid vacation time, finding a way to cover for her should be a high priority.

  • Catch people doing things right and say thank you.

Stay on the lookout for extraordinary performance. Maybe the business can start an "extra mile" award for those people who truly go the extra mile for the good of the business.

  • Avoid nitpicking the performance of stressed and tired employees.

Nitpicking can make a supervisor appear insensitive to an employee's effort. It will matter little, even if they happen to notice, that their supervisor is making even more sacrifices and is more stressed than they. Bad times call for patience and sensitivity to what employees are going through.

  • Listen to employees talk about what they think the problems are and what can be done about these problems.

Listen with an open mind. Listen without immediately judging the worth of their ideas. Ask both how and why not when evaluating the employees' ideas.

  • Provide new goals and new challenges for employees that will help the business get through the bad times.
    No matter how discouraged and skeptical employees may be, they want something to believe in. Ask supervisors to translate management's plans for getting through the bad times into individualized goals for employees. The business' full commitment to working through the bad times is possible only if there is commitment to attaining goals at every level of the business. This helps reinforce the managers' positive attitudes. It also says that the business is doing something about the bad times rather than simply waiting and hoping for better times.

Finding out how to earn a profit at lower prices, how to get the work done with one less employee and how to make workable repairs for the old piece of equipment rather than replace it are examples of problems where employees may have better ideas than any manager.

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  • Avoid reinforcing how bad the times are day after day.
    Avoid having one more staff meeting void of any good news. Disagree with employees who say there is no hope. Help employees understand that better times follow bad times. Help employees understand that other businesses are worse off.
  • Spare employees the managers' woes.
    Employees are no better off after hearing the managers' complaints about having to deal with management problems. Employees remember that when times were good, the managers may have been quite content to take credit for the successes without sharing the glory with the employees.
  • Avoid the myth that treating employees as friends and family will cause them to sympathize and be willing to sacrifice more.
    In fact, taking advantage of "friends" during bad times can damage relationships rather than making employees happy sufferers.
  • Continue giving priority to your management responsibilities.
    Filling the shoes of departed workers suggests to the remaining employees that you are avoiding important management responsibilities. They expect managers to be looking out for the longer-run interests of the business.

Communication
Even in good times, organizational communication challenges managers and, when done poorly, undermines efforts to build good relationships with employees. In bad times, having good organizational communication becomes even more important. During bad times, managers have several key messages to communicate to employees. In particular, managers need to communicate their attitudes about the bad times, employees and the future. They need to also communicate their plans for working through the bad times and the adjustments in human resource practices that will be necessary.

This communication will be top-down in the organization. It can incorporate a variety of communication channels, including staff meetings with top managers, crew or small group meetings, and written reports and/or updates. Managers can also communicate nonverbally through such things as their avoidance of employees, moods and upbeat demeanor. Top-down communication will be both formal and informal. Managers have the primary responsibility for top-down communication.

Organizational communication in bad times can also be bottom-up. Employees taking initiative to complain to their supervisors, to ask questions and to offer solutions to problems are examples of bottom-up communication. Bottom-up communication is mostly informal, i.e., nothing in writing. Employees have the primary responsibility for bottom-up communication.

Lateral communication is a third type of organizational communication. In bad times, employees will spend more time talking with each other than when times were good. This reflects their fears, their need to know, their attempts to figure out on their own what managers are not telling them and their wanting to test their own conclusions against those of coworkers. Lateral communication is almost exclusively informal. Employees have sole responsibility for their lateral communication.

Organizational communication is potentially hampered by several barriers. Managers have the primary responsibility for dealing with these barriers. The barriers can never be completely removed but their negative effects can be minimized. The following barriers are most likely to hamper organizational communication during bad times:

Nonverbal communication

This barrier is caused by employees misunderstanding the meaning of managers' actions, gestures, moods, absences and appearances of being stressed-out. Managers need to be as careful as possible to assure that their verbal messages are consistent with their nonverbal messages.

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Perception In bad times, employees are likely to treat their perceptions as if they were facts. Managers need to be on the lookout for misperceptions. Asking employees for feedback and summaries of their understanding of what has been communicated top-down is helpful.

The grapevine

News travels more rapidly by the grapevine than by formal communication channels. This means that employees are passing information to each other. Managers have no control over the distortions, speculations and rumors that will inevitably spring up from the grapevine. Managers need to work continuously to refute rumors and misinformation.

Information overload

Some managers do not provide enough information. Out of concern for uninformed employees, managers can provide too much information. Too many meetings, too many newsletters, too many long e-mails and too much time in small-group discussions are examples of how employees sometimes get more information than they can absorb. Managers need to pay careful attention to what employees already know and how much more they are capable of absorbing.

Lack of candidness

Both managers and employees can fall into the trap of telling others what they think they want to hear rather than what is candid and truthful. Bad news clearly understood is more helpful to employees than hinting at bad news. Similarly, managers need to continuously encourage employees to say what they are really thinking rather than what employees think the managers want to hear. An employee telling a manager he has a good idea when in fact the employee thinks it is a stupid idea that has no chance of working, damages both the manager's understanding of the situation and the employee's credibility.

Concluding comment

Bad times are not fun for anyone in the business. They cannot, however, be avoided. Top managers have the primary responsibility for leading the business through the bad times. Human resource practices adjusted to fit the bad times are important to making it to better times. Bad times need not weaken the employer/employee relationships that have been built in good times. Ironically, employee problems handled well during bad times can strengthen the work force and employee commitment to the business. PD

---Excerpts from Ohio State University Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics website

Bernard L. Erven
Professor Emeritus
Ohio State University

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