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Owning up to corporate trauma: straight talk is the best policy.

Owning up to corporate Trauma:

Yet, are these same companies making much effort to explain the cold, bare facts behind these dramatic decisions to their own employees? Some do, but most don't.

How do companies win worker "buy-in" to achieve these sweeping changes? It seems that top management groups, so caught up in the process of making change happen, have forgotten that their workers, by and large, are being left out of the corporate communication loop.

Like it or not, there's no way small or large companies can keep a lid on how good or bad their businesses may be doing. Take the example of a recent situation at IBM headquarters where an embarrassing electronic mail leak made its way to being published in a major weekly computer trade publication. The supposed "leak" was a blistering e-mail correspondence between workers at IBM, who were furious over their chairman's public remarks about the company's lack of productivity.

If such a glaring embarassment of airing dirty laundry can happen to IBM, the same can happen to any company.

Glasnost isn't everywhere

One of the world's oldest and largest telecommunications manufacturing firms is currently undergoing vast changes throughout its entire infrastructure. Over the past few months, it has been involved in downsizing one of its California-based divisions, resulting in layoffs, temporary close-downs and consolidations.

Tension and fear among the workers - from management to hourly workers - has been mounting to a boiling stage. Productivity is at an all-time low. Yet, the company has made absolutely no formal effort to explain or address the situation to its employees. While total departments are being eliminated, there is simply no explanation from company officials on the reasons behind the decision. As a result, the employees who remain feel alienated, threatened and cut off from knowing how to help support the company's new business efforts.

Interestingly enough, this company's division had recently launched a weekly employee newsletter, which only covered the usual gamut of what can only be termed corporate happy talk, i.e. employee bowling scores, new benefits and the like. During one week - the same week more than 90 employees were dismissed - the employee newsletter simply wasn't distributed! One worker quipped, "Kind of makes PRAVDA look good, doesn't it?"

How does this same company communicate the reasons for terminating its employees? It simply doesn't. Clearly, this is a missed opportunity for ending a relationship as positively as possible. What about providing a warmly written letter from the chairman of the company that delivers a candid overview of the firm's business situation forcing the termination of its employees?

Getting in front of

painful times

We all remember when we were about to be stabbed with our very first vaccination needle. The doctor said, "This is going to hurt, but you'll get over it ... it's going to be all right." Even though we felt the pain of the needle's sting, we were somehow prepared for it. We didn't feel betrayed or tricked. We took our medicine courageously and went on with it.

Companies in the midst of making difficult changes that result in terminating careers need to recognize the value of preparing their employees for painful changes.

Unfortunately, there are just too few companies that do. Most of us will agree that Apple Computer is one of these companies.

Although few traditional companies will immediately identify with Apple's seemingly casual corporate culture, many of these same companies could learn a few lessons from Apple's internal communication approach in dealing with laying off nearly 10 percent of its work force. Before pink slips were handed out, the company geared up its entire internal communication mechanism to announce the reduction in force to its employees.

They used a number of effective and inexpensive methods to carry out the message including the following: Special personalized letters from CEO John Sculley to everyone in the organization, a pre-recorded phone call from Sculley sent to each employee's voice mail phone box, carefully scripted Q&As for managers to provide in person with their direct reports, updates on the layoffs in the weekly employee newsletter and daily electronic mail message system.

"No one wanted to hear that they might lose their job," said one of Apple's human resource staff members, "but most everybody appreciated knowing that necessary changes were coming down, and somehow that helped in getting everybody to work a little bit harder and to be supportive of staff who were being terminated."

No reasons for

leaving a bitter taste

Millions are spent by companies to establish a glossy image and reputation. Yet, why do so many companies get low grades when it comes to their reputation among their own employees and ex-employees? The global corporate village is getting too intimate and too competitive for companies who overlook the advantages of influencing employees, as well as customers.

Companies not committed to good employee relations face major consequences. Among them are: high staff turnover; fewer and fewer attractive job candidates; and, of course, low productivity levels, ultimately resulting in decreased revenues per employee.

Change starts at the top and

at the heart of the company

No amount of "corporate happy talk" employee newsletters filled with bowling scores and staff awards will change an employee's deep-seated apprehensions and fears about working for a company facing serious changes. If no one at the top is taking a gloves-off approach to communicating to the organization, then the consequences described earlier must be accepted.

How does one convince top management that changes are needed? Facing up to this need takes an overall catharsis by top-management, however. Here are a few first-step ideas toward helping bring about change:

1) Organize a cross-section of company employees (mid-level managers, administrative assistants, hourly workers, etc.) and ex-employees, if possible, for an informal focus group session.

2) Ask the group members to discuss their feelings about the way the company communicates with them. Be clear that the session is not a "gripe session." You simply want their honest reaction to a few questions. Distribute copies of the company's employee-related materials. Query them on the content of the company's employee newsletters, investor reports and its reputation in the industry. Ask them if these materials address the most important issues on their minds. Do these materials clearly convey the company's short- and long-term visions? Are they supportive or at least understanding of why the company makes certain decisions? Ask them for recommendations on ways the company could improve its messages to employees.

3) Have the session tape-recorded and then transcribed without using any names of group members (assure them that they will remain anonymous).

4) Write an executive summary of the report followed by the transcription of the session.

5) Finally, make up a list of recommendations based upon the results of the session. Be sure to identify priority recommendations that can be easily enacted. Set aside those more difficult to be used as action items for a special top-management communication task force.

6) Continue to monitor the pulse of employees and ex-employees. Take stock of what other companies are doing to keep their employees well-informed and supportive of new directions.

Be ready for opposition to the recommendations. There always is reluctance to change. Your findings and recommendations, however, will clearly demonstrate the need for making new efforts on the part of management. In fact, your recommendations may be the start of an entirely new corporate philosophy toward communicating with employees.

Based in Mountain View, Calif., Kevin Mallon is a communication consultant working with companies undergoing transition.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Mallon, Kevin
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:AIDS and doctors: managing a communication crisis.
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