Guest Column - May/June 2009

Hey! What About Us?

In the Downturn, Don't Forget Key Players in Your Success

By Pete Mitchell


ake a peek into the closet of American workers these days and see the latest fashions. Hard hat? Check. Flak jacket? Check. Body armor? Check. And so we all suit up, hoping for the best but silently wondering if this will be The Day.

Employees are facing a vortex of bad news—get too close to it and it sucks the productivity and optimism right out of you. The numbers are too scary to even look at—sort of like our 200.5(k) (which was once a 401(k), but that was then), and everyone knows of someone who has met an untimely end.

And it's a race to the bottom. Every news channel and Web site has a more dire forecast, every newspaper (at least those that are still in business) trumpets more doom and gloom. Spend 45 minutes Googling "job cuts," and you might consider "cuts" of your own—on your wrists.

Yes, things are challenging—even scary. But even with 10 percent unemployment, that means 90 percent of the workforce is still there, still adding value and helping the company navigate the waters. Ninety percent of us still punching the clock and wondering if our organization cares about us. Ninety percent of us striving to attain the metrics assigned by senior management and hoping there's something for us out there if we do make our numbers.

For managers, this presents both challenge and opportunity, and for all of us it may present a change in the way we look at our human resources (the actual people, not the department). In all the discussions about the changing employment picture there may be a couple of things we forgot to notice, such as…

The Survivors

Almost all major companies struggle with how to "soften the landing" for those who will be displaced. They offer outplacement, counseling and financial compensation to the doomed. But there is almost no acknowledgement that the ones not displaced also are impacted.

Productivity almost always suffers in the period leading up to a bloodletting, and immediately afterward there is a "settling" period where the survivors figure out the new realities of the workplace. In this uncertain time it's crucial that managers recognize the contributions of those who remain in the organization. And it doesn't have to be with plasma TVs and bling (although that would certainly make a statement).

Creating little ways to reward and incent the survivors is a way to provide some level of acknowledgement that their contributions are valued by the company. Whether we wish to admit it or not, even survivors go through a mourning period when co-workers are let go. It's rare that a company takes the time to promote an environment of support.

So, what to do? Find the time, and the money (it's there—you know it is) to create some recognition. Even if the gesture is small, it will have much more impact than its cost. Survivors want to be reassured that the worst is over and they can get back to doing what they were hired to do.