As companies downsize, workers' faith shrinks

November 29, 1993|By Maida Odom | Maida Odom,Knight-Ridder News Service

Honest communication is the simple solution.

"Very, very simple," says management consultant Matt Oechsli, "but not easy."

The problem is spelled out in Mr. Oechsli's new survey of 1,485 workers and managers. According to the report, 89 percent of those who were asked what two changes they would like in the workplace answered that they'd like to "change management," and 91 percent said the workplace needed to "improve communication."

From these and other responses to 10 open-ended questions, asked with the promise of anonymity, Mr. Oechsli concluded that many workers do not feel they are listened to or appreciated. They also think their bosses lack integrity. These feelings or "invisible forces" ("You can also call them karma, vibes or energy") he says, undermine worker morale, undercutting productivity and performance.

Overcoming them requires well-developed people skills and the

ability to instill organizational esteem -- areas not covered in traditional business schools. Thus, from the top managers down, the simple solution isn't so simple; it requires sweeping changes.

Other changes in the workplace explain the negative responses to Mr. Oechsli's survey, says John Brock, senior vice president and managing director at the Philadelphia office of Drake Beam Morin Inc. His company is a consulting firm with 63 offices worldwide specializing in helping companies and individuals undergo transitions. He said layoffs have made workers look at their employment situation differently.

"Loyalty has been reduced and people are becoming more loyal to themselves," says Mr. Brock. "The individual is asking the company, 'Please care about me.' "

Following layoffs -- given the euphemism "downsizing" -- it's common for companies to face productivity problems, Mr. Brock says. "The key to regaining trust during a transition is a very strong communication plan."

He says employees become disenchanted with their workplace when the organization and the individual aren't striving for the same thing. That, he says, is where communication is needed to refocus people, making it clear what roles they can play in the "downsized" company.

Employees during a transition period are grouped loosely into three categories: the visionaries and innovators who react well to change; the majority, who react more slowly and need help; and those people who cannot adapt.

Those who cannot adapt eventually leave, and the sooner they )) do, the better off the company will be, says Mr. Brock.

And yet knowing that workers can be so disposable these days is part of the extreme stress and dissatisfaction that is being reported to worker advocacy groups and reflected in Mr. Oechsli's survey, according to Marypat Blankenheim, spokeswoman for 9to5, the National Association of Working Women.

"Business has you over a barrel," she says. "It's not as though there aren't 1,500 people out there ready to get your job."

That's why the average workweek is getting longer, she says. "People are working longer hours out of fear," she continues.

"Management is giving the message that the bottom line is more important than the workers, and your longevity with this company is in direct correlation to that bottom line," she says. One of the results has been an increase in back-stabbing.

In Mr. Oechsli's survey, 75 percent said they worried about keeping their jobs in what they described as a more competitive environment. In response to a question about "the Golden Rule" that was worded to gauge corporate ethics, 69 percent answered, "It doesn't exist -- no trust."

"The truth-trust issue is a big thing," says Ms. Blankenheim. "People need to know they can do their job, and if their kid is sick or they have to take a day off for some medical test, they

won't be replaced."

All too often, she says, "you find yourself worrying more about keeping your job than doing it."

Mr. Brock agrees that many companies need to look at their "attitude toward people"; that is, how a company balances the individual's needs and the company's needs. It's critical, he says, to find out what motivates the individual.

"You need candid meetings and visibility from top management because the vision has to be communicated down. You need regular staff meetings and values expressed -- that goes to the Golden Rule-integrity issue."

Mr. Oechsli, in an interview from his office in Greensboro, N.C., outlines a similar plan for initiating and maintaining honest communication:

The company needs a stated purpose or mission with time-specific, reasonable goals set and with feedback and participation. Workers should get regular communication and recognition. And they should be accountable for their performance.

Leaders should be observant, ready to address dissent, all the while reinforcing the group's psyche and building up the group's self-esteem.

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