Don’t Eff It Up – Talking To Employees When The Economy Sucks

For my international readers, I live in Calgary, Canada, which is a bit of a cross between Denver and Houston as we are located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and are the heart of Canada’s petroleum industry.

The oil crash in 2014 from over $100 a barrel to $30 in 18 months has been hard on our economy, with over 100 thousand layoffs. Many companies have closed their doors and are in dire financial straights.

The community is rife with terrible stories about how companies handle employee communications—from lies, senior leaders told people everything was good, then announced layoffs the next day. To inhumanity, one company asked all their staff to go into their offices, close the door and wait till 11:00. If they hadn’t been told by 11:00 that they had lost their job, they could have come out and carried on.

In short, many companies and bosses have messed up treating their people with respect and dignity.

How Not To Mess It Up

How do you talk to your employees honestly about company finances and plans?

It’s hard to be a business owner with people counting on you when you have worries and aren’t sure what is appropriate to share. As an employee, it is also hard to be in the dark regarding your employer’s plans and wonder if layoffs are looming or if your job is changing.

Here are four tips for talking with your employees when business is in tough times:

Tip #1: Don’t keep your employees in the dark — speak to them.

Here is the number one truism about your employees: They will make it up in the absence of information.

Employees are much closer to what’s going on than you are. They will know if sales are slowing because they are dealing with the phones and the deliveries each day. They also watch the news and follow social media, so they know. Never think that no news from you will be seen as good news.

There is a fine line to know when to discuss finances with employees. You don’t want to alarm anyone, but you also don’t want them jumping to conclusions because they aren’t getting information from you.

Bring everyone in, sit them down and lay out a few key points about the company’s situation. Don’t dwell on bad news, and don’t paint a picture of sunshine & roses — be balanced. Tell your people the steps you are taking to address the situation. You don’t have to have all the answers (see next point below), but you should also not give the impression that you’re clueless.

Read More about using silence while communicating

Tip #2: Allow for two-way communication.

When delivering bad news, I suggested speaking so your humanity and empathy come through.

Because we live through profit, losses, and recessions, you won’t have answers to every question. DO NOT make promises you can’t keep (like I guarantee no one will be laid off).

But letting employees talk and ask questions will make them feel part of the process. They will know you are listening. Hearing their questions will tell you much about what your people are thinking. You may be able to dispel rumours and reassure them.

Please keep track of the questions you have not answered and address them in subsequent meetings.

Tip #3: Convey confidence.

Suppose you are in a panic that will be magnified in your employees ten times over. If employees sense that you are coming across as if the sky is falling, they could start heading for the door.

The best way to deal with your own emotions is to know, plan and write out what you want to say in advance. Practice it if necessary. Take a deep breath and put your game face on before you meet with your people. You will feel calmer and more confident and convey that image.

Tip #4: Be a good fiscal role model.

Who would you support as a leader during tough times?

The CEO of an oilfield services firm overheard griping about the first-class service he received on his last flight just before he told his managers they had to cut staff by 5%.

Or, the Boss who took a larger pay cut than the staff got, cancelled the Palm Springs leadership team retreat and cut out catered lunches for management meetings?

Double standards destroy your credibility. When you share bad news and try to reassure people, they will likely not believe you unless they feel you have skin in the game.

Read More about walking the walk.

Let me close with this: Each situation is different, so there are no simple answers to how to communicate bad news to employees. But I do know that without your employees, your company is nothing.

Put yourself in their shoes and be the leader you would want to have during tough times.

Leading means you need to be in front