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Communication, trust can help ease layoff fears

Jan Quintrall Staff writer

It was a normal (busy) day at the BBB office in Spokane. Phones were ringing off the hook. The cordless headsets my staff uses make it difficult to know if they are talking to a caller, a co-worker or themselves.

I walked up behind “Mary,” who was on the phone, and gently set my hand on her back. I made the universal gesture of “Come see me when you are finished” and walked back to my office.

Meanwhile, my vice president came in to discuss a couple of projects. When Mary finished helping the caller, she walked into my office only to see both of us seated, with one chair empty. All the color drained from her face. For a moment, her emotions were written large for all to read.

I was really surprised at her reaction, because Better Business Bureau management is pretty darn good at coaching and training before we ever take action to terminate anyone. I felt puzzled as to why she was so insecure. The more I thought about it, the stranger I found her reaction.

All I had wanted to do was to ask her to order office supplies for me.

At dinner that night I told my husband about the incident. As he often does, he gave me a dose of reality and made me understand how unsettling that kind of thing can be. I have worked at the top of the food chain for too long, and there are times when I lose perspective.

The following morning I walked into the morning staff huddle and brought up this incident to remind the older staff and let the newer employees know that we do not take action without a whole lot of warning, coaching and help first. But that was not the issue at all. It turned out Mary thought she might be the next victim of layoffs because of the challenging economic climate we all find ourselves in. And once I opened the subject, I saw that the entire staff is very nervous. What a wakeup call.

Like many other businesses, we at the BBB are doing more with less. We have fewer people on staff, and our communities continue to turn to us in bigger numbers every month. While our work grows, our support from the over-extended business community shrinks. I am very open and share our financial information with the staff on a regular basis so they know things are, well, let’s say interesting. But I underestimated the toll it is taking on them and their sense of security.

Even if your business has not had to lay off staff or eliminate positions, each morning’s news is full of massive cuts and general gloom and doom, and your employees are worried. How can leaders, managers and supervisors calm those fears?

•Transparency is critical. If you allow the rumor mill to answer the questions and set the tone, watch out.

•Do not make promises and guarantees about things that you cannot control: It erodes your credibility.

•Now is a good time to ask your staff for suggestions. They are wise – just listen to them.

•Create a culture that emphasizes you all are in the same boat, and let everyone figure out ways to best sail through these rough seas.

Take time to talk with them, and let them know you understand. When the group asked me if we were finished with layoffs, I told them I honestly hope so, but I don’t know. Yes, that made me feel quite vulnerable, now that I have confirmed that I do not have all the answers. But I bet they feel a whole lot more connected to the solution knowing they can trust me.

With trust come creative and often successful ways to connect to your customers and build your business. If your team feels they can be a part of the solution, most of them will roll up their sleeves and make the best of the challenge.

The most important message I saved for last: Your staff must know that management is in this with them, whether that means a salary reduction for the highly compensated, elimination of more than just entry-level positions, or even-handed benefit decreases.

How do we all feel when there are layoffs announced one day and a bonus for the CEO the next? That sends the message that while we might all be in the same boat, some of the passengers are rowing their guts out and some are in staterooms dining on caviar and drinking champagne. How hard would you row under those circumstances?

The good people we have working with us will ensure that we weather this storm, as long as honesty and respect are the first ingredients in the fuel we power our ships with.

Jan Quintrall is president of the Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at or (509) 232-0530.
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