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Post-layoff period is a great time to refocus staff

Published on February 20, 2002
on TechRepublic.Com

Departmental layoffs inevitably spur feelings of both guilt and fear from IT staffs. Survivors secretly wonder, "Why was I spared?" and ponder whether they'll be next when cuts come.

Managers not only have to deal with less manpower but a morale hurdle as well. Projects will likely suffer as productivity drops— for up to three months after a round of layoffs, according to some studies.

In response, IT leaders need a strategy to rebuild and motivate staff to continue to excel at their jobs and support the company. The post-layoff period is also a great time to transform company attitudes and behaviors, according to business economist and Yale graduate Darwin Gillett.

Here are some steps that you should include in a rebuilding strategy. The key, according to experts, is adopting a new approach to not only the staff and the company but also to yourself as the department leader.

A 12-step strategy

One approach focuses on putting people first and adjusting your management style, says Gillett, president of Gillett Associates, an international consulting organization. He is also founder and executive director of the Institute for Human Economics, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to researching and communicating new models of managerial science for leaders of businesses and other work organizations.

The Yale economist recently published "Twelve Steps for Tapping Human Energy to Regenerate Growth and Profitability," which outlines principles that may, at first glance, appear to be common sense but that actually require significant corporate commitment. The book is free and can be obtained by writing to Gillett Associates.

In the book, Gillett says CIOs need to evaluate their company's current approach to employees. A good starting point for the evaluation is to identify the last time the board of directors asked to review figures on employee satisfaction. The answer is usually "never," he says. In order to put people first, IT leaders have to keep organization directors accountable for improvements.

But organizations' leaders are sometimes hesitant about this approach. "When you say, ‘I'm going to put people first,' it sometimes turns people off because they think you're too touchy-feely and you're not going to make the hard decision," explains Bill Catucci, executive vice president for global operations at Atlanta-based Equifax, an S&P 500 consumer credit company. Companies can't have satisfied customers without satisfied employees, Catucci notes.

Gauging staff satisfaction is a key step

One of the simplest ways CIOs can gauge worker satisfaction is to spend time talking with them and noting issues they're having trouble with. Another good tool is employee surveys, which can provide a mechanism for employee feedback. That's the route Catucci took when he recently inherited management of Equifax's 500-person IT organization.

Catucci not only asked technologists to rate themselves, but he surveyed other business units about the IT department. The results were enlightening: In-house clients rated the IT unit poorly, yet staff believed they were performing quite well. The staff survey included questions on career development, business strategies, training, communication, and employee perceptions about quality.

"I believe in data and going back to people and asking them about things," explains Catucci. With that data in hand, Catucci set about prioritizing aspects that could be improved--such as compensation, training, and communication.

Surveys should also measure considerations such as employee productivity, downtime, reduction of errors, and of course, profitability. Historically, however, all of these larger company-related issues come before employees' personal concerns, notes Gillett, which is another problem to conquer.

A new leadership style needed

Transforming employees' attitudes takes more than surveys and action plans, however, according to Gillett. It also takes a new style of leadership, which he calls "enspirited leadership."

"There's so much energy wasted in organizations pretending ‘We're okay.' The enspirited leader would say, ‘This place stinks, we all know it, and maybe I'm to blame, but let's fix it," Gillett explains.

The key is that the leader believes in the new message and the method. Enspirited leaders are engaged, excited, and positive, says Gillett. Instead of the current approach of bullying and driving people hard to sniff out problems, the enspirited leader discovers what's working well and builds from that.

Another key aspect, in addition to monitoring business performance metrics, is that leaders must remain extremely visible within the tech organization, Catucci notes. He frequently sits in on meetings, speaks to employees, and publishes a monthly newsletter that communicates personal as well as business successes.

He also conducts quarterly "town hall" meetings with staff to discuss the organization's growth and strategy and holds an annual department event to recognize staff who have kept systems up and running or who have been outstanding innovators. Last year, he suggested that staff apply for certain industry awards, including the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Awards. (Malcolm Baldrige, who served as Secretary of Commerce from 1981 until his tragic death in a rodeo accident in 1987, was noted for his managerial excellence, which contributed to long-term improvement in efficiency and effectiveness of government.)

There's never a bad time to refocus

Gillett says that while it's always easier to instigate change management in a robust economy, an economic downturn and layoff periods are still good times to review how a unit is conducting business and handling staff issues.

He believes companies do not spend enough time on the important people issues. "If we spend 90 percent of our time on technology, 7 percent on finance, and 3 percent on people, doesn't it make sense for an organization to spend a little more time on people to get them off the floor and breathing again?" Gillett says.

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david southgate
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