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Article: The New Watering Holes

The New Watering Holes:
How to Keep Them From Drying Up

by Cindy Chernow, Chernow Consulting

Companies are downsizing, rightsizing and capsizing today at a phenomenal rate. When the downturn ends, companies who managed to survive will be those who recognized that their most valuable commodity is their employees.

Technology, global competition and now, war, rank as major reasons for today’s layoffs. According to Chicago-based employment research firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, last year approximately 3.3 million people lost their jobs - the equivalent of about 275,000 jobs cut per month. Fearful there is a pink slip waiting for them, many of those left behind, the “organizational survivors,” have become victims as well. Deserted hallways and lunch rooms leave employees left behind asking themselves:

    Will I be the next to go?

    Will my current job change?

    How will I be able to work more with fewer resources?

    Will the company survive and, if it does, what will the new management look like?

Being employed today can seem as unstable as being unemployed. Statistics recently released by Andersen Knowledge Systems and Research showed that 47% of the employees find out about their company layoffs from rumors and word of mouth, 32% by internal memo and only 11% by an internal meeting or direct contract with management. Employees are left in the dark feeling they are losing control. And, with a failing economy and continuing instability around the world, people are more afraid than ever to leave their jobs. They are feeling trapped; desperately seeking reasons to wake up in the morning. As a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the workplace, I question who is taking care of those left behind.

In third world and non-industrial countries, the watering hole has always been a place for people to gather. It was a place where the villagers could exchange information and stories about the latest news. Those watering holes have become today’s corporate water coolers and, unfortunately, a place where our employees are gathering all too often to share their concerns, their frustrations and their anger about the workplace. How can we keep those watering holes from drying up? How can we make those water cooler conversations more productive and hopeful for employees?

A mind shift needs to occur. I am called upon to use my background in Anthropology, Human Resource Management, and Career Development to help employers and employees better understand and improve the culture of work. Management needs constant reminding that it costs six times as much to recruit one new employee as it does to retain an existing employee. To be successful, companies must begin to turn their energies inward, to assure employees and help them feel more comfortable when their co-workers and friends have been terminated. Unless companies begin to focus on those left behind, there will be an unparalleled exodus of knowledge and experience that can literally bring an organization to its knees. Employees need to feel a part of the process and it begins with open, honest communication.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Communication is the key! We are more connected than ever before through technology and yet we are not connecting. There are times when it is more appropriate to share information personally as opposed to simply relying on e-mail and voice mail to carry our message(s).

  • Employees need to be included and involved. Appreciate the burden that employees left behind will face. They generally will have more work and fewer resources with which to perform that work. Encourage their input in any restructuring. Have patience and understanding.

  • Managers must provide a positive, safe environment in which the employees choose to join with them in meeting the goals of the organization.

  • Assumption is the parent of all mistakes. The only way to clarify expectations and assumptions is to communicate them, openly, honestly, and with respect and trust. Accept that expectations cannot be met unless they are understood.

  • Effective communication involves listening as well as speaking. It’s time to stop and listen. Most workers today are so busy multi-tasking that few actually hear what is being said. Listening with empathy requires respecting another’s knowledge, opinions, perspective and integrity, even when there are differing points of view.

  • Shift attention from 'everything is changing' to 'some things are changing.' Keep employees focused and informed. Help them to envision positive changes and new opportunities.

  • Form think tanks and get ideas from employees on ways to improve working conditions.

  • In the end, it is a commitment that gets results. Develop relationships and communicate a vision of excellence that pulls, rather than pushes, others to join with that vision and that manager in achieving desired results.

  • Taking care of our people should be the first priority. Understand the “rebuilding process” takes time and effort. Work with your employees to build a cohesive group that is all operating toward the same goals.

  • Remember to have fun!

Waiting for things to return to “normal” is not an option. Things never really return to the old status quo and the definition of “normal” is becoming more blurred everyday. The challenge is to learn to operate in an environment of ongoing change; to find out what is not working and do less of that and to explore what is working or could work and do more. Some fun and some hope needs to be put into the workplace. In order to avoid the rampant spread of organizational indifference where employees no longer care about the success of the company, management must be proactive and not reactive. Open communication, recognition, a caring familial atmosphere, and a few moments of laughter can go a long way…and it’s all free. Companies cannot motivate individuals, but they can provide an environment that stimulates motivation, where people are made to feel important.

Reprinting with author attribution approved.


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