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Combating employee disengagement during difficult times

Bettina Pickering and Amy Finn
PA Consulting Group
HR Zone
1 February 2009

In difficult economic times the news an organisation has to communicate to its employees is often negative – "profits are down"; "orders have not met targets"; "redundancies may be required". Unwilling to disappoint people, or unable to provide 'the answer' to these problems, management often fails to communicate with their staff, and engagement activities are seen as an easy way to cut costs.

Inevitably, employees fill the resulting communication vacuum with rumour. Frustration builds as employees suspect that management are having conversations amongst themselves and not telling the wider workforce what is going on. As management begins to lose control of the organisation's rumour mill, employees disengage resulting in a drop in customer service, increased stress and ill health in the workplace, and delay in the implementation of efficiency and cost cutting measures.

HR has a key role to play in combating employee disengagement during difficult times. HR practitioners are responsible for reminding leaders and managers that frequent, high quality employee engagement is one of the critical activities that will help the organisation to steer more smoothly through an uncertain climate.

Ensure engagement is on leaders' to do lists

A difficult economy often prompts managers to dig deep and focus on financial measures. As they try to keep the company afloat and improve cash flow, they inevitably tend to focus on keeping customer contracts, introducing cost-cutting measures and appeasing shareholders.

Often this leaves little time or energy for direct employee engagement and communication. Top leaders make hopeful assumptions that managers will cascade information to their teams, but often those managers are ill-equipped to do the job, unclear about the key messages they should be communicating, and wary of 'scaring off' staff with negative news.

"Frustration builds as employees suspect that management are having conversations amongst themselves and not telling the wider workforce what is going on."HR can ensure that engagement activities are on the agenda of the board and the top leadership team. They can help leaders to understand the engagement needs of the different levels of the organisation, and ensure that leaders and managers have the right skills and preparation to carry out these engagement activities.

An all too predictable situation can arise in which messages have been poorly communicated - or misinterpreted - and have resulted in a worsening of the organisation's situation. The employees at each level of our example organisation are concerned about the rumours they have heard from inside and outside the organisation, and as a result are doing their best to ensure they keep their job.

Gary, the sales director, should be the most informed person in our example, but he fails to communicate the complete picture to his team who become concerned by his directives. He relies on the formal cascade engagement process to work and does not take into account the informal information networks within the company that are stoking confusion and concern. Gary has not considered, or addressed the key questions in peoples' minds: "Will I lose my job?" and "what should I be doing differently when talking to my customers or my employees?"

In our example, HR was not involved in supporting managers in the communication and engagement process. This situation is reflected by reality, as HR is often only invited to the table when job losses appear inevitable. By this stage it is often too late as top performers have already sought alternative opportunities and performance has started to dip. What could have been done differently?

Help management to start thinking like an employee

When faced with a difficult situation, Gary focused on what he knew best - sales volume and financial targets. People engagement was not his strength and he wasn't aware of its importance.

HR could have supported Gary and his management team in a number of key ways:

Developing a set of consistent communication messages to combat rumour and confusion

Drawing up an engagement plan including face-to-face team briefings and question and answer sessions

Working with Gary and his managers to help them engage their staff in revenue improvement or cost-cutting measures

Alerting Gary and his management team to planned IT outsourcing activities and ensuring that key messages were in place to alleviate sales staff fears

Mapping informal relationships within the company, identifying opinion builders such as Andy from the post room, and ensuring that these people were also included in the official information flow.

Don't keep people in the dark

A tough economic climate often encourages leaders to focus on financial targets at the expense of people initiatives such as communication and engagement. However, in difficult times - when employees are often concerned about their future and what they could be doing differently to support the organisation - there is a need for more communication, not less.

HR has a key role to play in helping leaders to understand that an information vacuum coupled with fear often has far worse consequences than spending valuable time and energy on getting the engagement right.

To view further articles on HR Zone, please see

Bettina Pickering is a managing consultant, and Amy Finn is a principal consultant, at PA Consulting Group. 

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