Keep staff informed about changes

  • Associated Press
  • Thursday, July 29, 2004 9:00pm
  • Business

You’re expanding your small business, and hiring more staffers. Or the opposite – you’re cutting back. Or maybe you’re moving your office. These are all big changes that are bound to unsettle your employees.

Consultants who advise businesses on handling change and owners who have led their companies through changes say communication is critical in helping employees cope.

“Communication is everything … to update the employees on a regular basis about not just what the owner thinks is relevant, but the little things” that are important to workers, said Lisa Aldisert, president of Pharos Alliance, a New York-based consulting firm.

Craig Gipple, a consultant in Florham Park, N.J., and co-author of “Managing Business Change for Dummies,” said communication is the primary way to alleviate uncertainty.

“Without communication in detail, the employee is not going to know what’s really happening and how it’s going to affect them. And they’re going to assume the worst.”

Cammi Bailey, a certified public accountant in Tempe, Ariz., with six employees, had to lay off one worker, a traumatic occurrence in such a small office.

“They were concerned about their jobs. I just sat down and talked to each one of them individually,” Bailey said. “I explained why I had to let a person go, because there wasn’t work.”

At Chapman Healthcare Services Inc., the change was an expansion, with the Vidalia, Ga.-based health care equipment company growing from seven workers to 27 and opening a second office in Savannah.

Company chief G. Biram Chapman said he learned the need to fight rumors and gossip, which foster uncertainty and anxiety. He asked his staff not to pass along – or even listen to – unofficial talk about impending changes.

Meanwhile, Chapman said, “we’re immediately telling folks what is happening, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and give us their concerns.”

It helps to have already been running your company in an open fashion. If employees find you unapproachable in general, they’re not likely to come to you with their concerns when you’re contemplating a big change.

Communication means honesty.

Aldisert advised against making the situation sound better than it is, or trying to talk workers out of any negative reactions. If employees are left “feeling that their quality of life on the job is less than it used to be, don’t try to tell people that it’s not. Don’t sugarcoat the situation,” she said.

Gipple said, “Tell them the bad news as well as why it’s a great thing for them.”

You may also find that being sympathetic to employees’ concerns can be a benefit.

“Force begets resistance, so if you want them to sabotage your change or slow down or not move, just force them,” said Leslie Yerkes, president of Catalyst Consulting Group in Cleveland. “The opposite of force is information, engagement, planning.”

Planning is another antidote to change-related uncertainty. The more you can tell employees what to expect – and that means planning and getting answers on your part – the happier they’ll be.

“A lot of dealing with change is setting expectations” said Chris Cigarran, senior director of training and organizational development with American Healthways, a Nashville, Tenn.-based disease management firm.

American Healthways has undergone a number of changes during its 23-year history, including a migration through different segments of the health care industry. Cigarran also said communication was key to making changes that are successful, but so is having employees who are able to deal with change.

“It starts in the (employee) selection process. Look for people who are go-getters,” he said.

Small Business is a weekly column on the topic by the Associated Press.

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