April 30, 2012 | last updated June 1, 2012 2:12 pm
TALKING POINTS

Memo to management: Employees don't trust you

By many accounts, recent economic trends are encouraging.

The business world can perhaps now hope that the worst economic downturn of our generation is coming to an end and we'll again enter a cycle of economic progress.

But what's to come after the smoke clears? What will be the new pact between employers and their battle-scarred employees and with new workers coming in? How will management successfully formulate, and communicate, its message for the recovery?

The severity of the downturn - and negative perceptions of how corporate America participated in it - has altered the bond employees have with their companies and the role it has in their lives. The sheer massiveness of the meltdown, coupled with revelations of unsustainable practices in the financial and housing markets, shook Americans' faith in the system.

News coverage of the crisis spotlighted troubling scenarios:

• Banks, once seen as careful, even tightfisted, stewards of the money they had to lend, were handing it over to borrowers who couldn't pay it back.

• Institutions sold shaky financial instruments tied to the shifting housing market to trusting investors. And yet banking executives, even after a government bailout, continued to claim hefty bonuses.

• Layoffs, meanwhile, rumbled through the workforce.

Amid the daily flood of information, workers began to question whose side management was on, regardless of the industry they worked in. Was the C-suite somehow conspiring to take advantage of the system, benefiting at the expense of everyone else?

In previous recoveries, even with a growing distance between employees and management, there was more a spirit of "let's dust ourselves off and get on with it." This time around, workers are wary and perhaps embittered by an economic upheaval that shook us to the roots.

A trust deficit has emerged.

Not so long ago, many employees were in large part defined by their companies. But the days of 40 years with the same company and retirement with a comfortable pension were fading even before this most recent downturn. Employees were discovering that they and their children might work for several different companies before retirement.

Then came the 2008 economic tailspin, and its eventual surge of doubt and distrust. In short, employees - rightly or wrongly - feel betrayed in a way that could take years to repair.

But some things remain constant. What we do for a living is still at the core of our identities, our sense of self-worth and significance. We expect that to be valued at the places where we work.

Brighter days are surely ahead. But with today's backdrop, is it possible to re-create a work environment in which people feel valued and connected? Can corporate America convince its employees that they can again believe in a partnership with the executive corridors?

The answer: Absolutely.

A new approach

But success will require a significant shift. Business initiatives will need to be coupled with a recommitment to the workforce. That will prove tricky but not impossible.

As companies begin to rebuild their revenue streams, reinvest in their workforce and further diversify their products and services, they will need to rebuild unity and coalition within the company. New vision, new direction and new strategies alone will not reinvigorate employees.

It will take a new way of thinking. It will require a dedicated process of consistent communication of the company's strategies and results to ensure employees feel a part of the institution and are committed to it.

For some executives the shift will feel uncomfortable: It will require greater sharing, more face-to-face time with the front-line employee and to some degree a flattening of the organization.

It's up to leadership to get across a clear message of what the company's all about. And it's better to over-communicate than to under-communicate. It's leadership's role to instill in employees how their efforts make the company succeed and to show how the company in turn benefits employees for individual good performance.

And leadership must give employees a voice in developing company strategy; it should not be the exclusive purview of top executives. Employees who feel involved feel valued.

In the end, companies who invest in their employees' future will reap the benefits: a return to prosperity driven by the efforts - and allegiance - of a committed workforce.

What is your plan?

Vintage Foster is president/CEO of AMF Media Group, a marketing and public relations firm in San Ramon, Calif. Reach him at Vintage.Foster@AMFMediaGroup.com.

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