More than once in our working careers, we will face negative communications in the workplace — specifically, communication that delves into mergers, layoffs, or company changes. Rumors spread quickly when the flames are not doused immediately, so organizations must disseminate information to avoid mass exodus or, at the very least, an angry mob.
When news of a change spreads, fear and panic follow suit because of either not having enough information, or any at all. Or, the information that has been approved for release is skeleton and doesn’t answer what most want to know: “Will I lose my job?”
What negative messages do psychologically
Employees who hear negative news begin to psychologically associate themselves with the impending result, even if they will not be directly impacted. When news of change, for example, sends the message that jobs are going to be affected, employees begin to distance themselves from the company — mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Negative messages impact morale just as much as positive messages do. When morale is adversely affected, productivity takes a nosedive. Once employees feel their presence has no value, they begin to look for a different line of work in the hopes that the new environment will be more welcoming than the one they’re leaving.
Further, employees are no longer motivated following adverse communications; the lack of motivation can eventually affect a person to the point of depression, which in some cases can be detrimental. For instance, depressed employees who work with heavy machinery or in other areas where alertness is a priority, can ultimately threaten the safety of themselves and those around them.
Why is any of this important? Because change happens constantly, and we need to learn how to communicate the changes as a company and how to accept the changes as employees. As much as most of us are willing to embrace change, at the same time change can be frightening because, by human nature, we don’t like change.
Here are a few ideas to alleviate the fear created by change.
When communicating mergers
A merger is exciting for the company, but less exciting for the employees faced with possible job losses … and communicating mergers is tricky because of the legalities involved.
Executives, managers, and human resource officers all need to be involved from the start to know how the merger will affect employees, and how the changes should be communicated. They also want to be on top of anticipating the questions and concerns they will receive, and how to respond appropriately.
For instance, although the organization would not communicate its intent from the start, especially since mergers are not events put on the fast track, the company should prepare for possible leaked information and how to handle those rumors.
Outline the communications plan; know what messages need to be communicated and the appropriate times to do so. You want employees to know what is happening and when, how they are involved, that you’re keeping them in the loop with the changes, and where they can turn for answers to their questions. Your goal is to build trust, not a barrier, with your employees.
Do this: Anticipate questions and mixed messages that might spread, and know how you should respond. The main question will always be: “Will I lose my job?” Make sure your intentions for your employees are clear, and be honest with them. Since your employees are the foundation that keeps your company solid, you will need their trust and support in your decision.
If you do intend to offer continued work for your employees, make sure they know you value them. Clearly explain how they will benefit from the decision, and show them you believe in them by outlining how their roles will either remain or evolve into something that will need their quality skills.
Not that: Do not remain silent, especially if the rumor begins spreading. Do not inform your human resources department close to the merger deadline, giving them little time to prepare. Do not inform employees of the merger at the last minute. Do not ignore questions. And do not inform employees they are losing their jobs without having a game plan for them to act or time to prepare.
When communicating layoffs
The news of layoffs is never pretty. This announcement usually cannot be sweetened with something positive. Whether employees learn of this in advance or find out on what turns out to be their last day, the shock of such an announcement cannot be softened. Many people sink their lives into their work: their jobs define who they are, they have families to support. It’s a crushing blow to the spirit to have to hear such news.
Do this: Since this is a situation that will grow over time toward layoff inevitability, have a communications plan in place and ready to go. Make sure after you deliver the sad news that your immediate follow-up message is something the employees can grab onto, such as a severance package or job opportunities within the organization elsewhere.
Be honest about who is affected and what the result is to the company. Be up front about the situation. And if you want to help your employees, make that clear.
Not that: Do not deliver the news the day you’re locking the doors. Giving employees advance notice means they can begin their job search early. Companies prefer to hire employed workers. Not only that, it gives the employee peace of mind to go from one job to the next. And companies are willing to wait for skilled workers, which means you can have your worker to the last day.
When communicating change in general
When change — any change — happens quickly, it’s difficult even for executives to keep up, let alone stay ahead, and that is how communications become skewed. The continual fear for employees, as already noted, is: “Will I lose my job?”
First, make sure your company and all who represent it at the top are clear on the changes, and how the changes fit into the culture and values of the company. That will ensure your messages are in harmony, and every executive and every manager can respond to questions in agreement.
Second, make sure you are clear on how employees’ contributions are going to benefit the changes. Be honest with how their roles fit into the changes and how much you value their skills as you move forward in the future.
Third, avoid premature messages, and communications that are negative and could cause fear in your employees. If the communications you are sending do not coincide with what executives across the company have agreed upon, you will quickly lose your employees’ trust.
Do this: As always, have a communications plan in place. To move forward, you must know your destination and why you’re taking that journey. Make sure that information is clear to your employees. Know what communications need to be disseminated and when.
Since change brings fear, anticipate employees’ concerns and know how to answer them. Even better, try to answer them ahead of time. Strengthen employees’ value and trust by explaining clearly how their skills will be used, especially if their jobs might change in the future. If you truly do value your employees and recognize their dedication and loyalty are what is helping you move forward, find a place for them in your organization, and be up front and strategic on what they will be doing.
Make sure your managers are working closely with you and human resources officers to help allay fears, answer questions, and work with employees to be alert to the best use of their skills and talents. Managers should focus on mentoring their employees.
Not that: Do not communicate messages that convey that employees will lose their jobs because of change. Dangling job loss is a stab to productivity and morale. Do not ignore rumors or remain silent to questions and concerns. Do not send messages that are confusing or conflict with earlier communications. Do not send one set of communications in one area of the organization and another contradicting set to another area.
The bottom line
Change happens, whether we want it to or not. And companies that make changes over the years are savvy — they stay ahead of demand and satisfaction. Businesses that thrive mean job security for employees.
No matter the situation, the bottom line is the same: think about how your employees are going to feel about the change, and then figure out how to calm their fears. Your employees are the lifeblood of your company: treat them fairly in all situations, and you will earn their understanding and respect in return, even if the news that’s to come is not positive.