Fear brings loathing, not harder work

2009

With thousands of jobs being cut daily, it's only natural most of us are probably feeling a bit insecure about our employment right now. Yet, while it's understandable that the focus has to be on cutting costs and staying afloat, managers also need to make sure talent management and career development do not drop down the priority list.

A study by UK consultancy Personnel Decisions International has identified a dramatic, and in the long term potentially worrying, shift in the top priorities of business leaders.

Financial pressures and the need to cut costs are now cited as the number one business priority, along with the rapid decline in their markets.

Talent management, which back in 2006 was one of the top priorities, had now dropped to the bottom of the list.

In fact, the poll of leaders in 500 organisations carried out between December and January found just five per cent recognising "loss of leaders in key areas or insufficient talent to quickly adapt to change" as a current business challenge.

"Organisations should be asking, 'do we want to be in business after the downturn?'" warned Simon Callow, managing director of PDI UK.

"If the answer is 'yes,' they must focus on the leaders who can guide them through these turbulent times," he added.

This mental shrugging of shoulders over talent management and assuming it is something they only need to worry about during the good times has also been highlighted in research by recruitment firm Robert Half International.

It has identified the 30 most common mistakes that managers tend to make in an uncertain economy, of which the following seven are the most common:

Thinking your staff can't handle the truth
The argument here is that, if you haven't before, now is the time to treat employees like business partners, argued the firm.

It is therefore important to be talking openly about the effect of the downturn on your firm and ensuring you help staff feel they have some measure of control.

Practical things you can do should perhaps include discussing issues that arose during the last business slowdown, how things turned around and what was learned from that experience, it advised.

Treating people as if they're lucky just to have a job
It may be true that many employees feel fortunate to have a stable position, but this does not mean managers should be ignoring the desire of their employees for positive recognition and career support, stressed Robert Half.

Top performers in particular often require extra attention in a downturn. In fact not only are their contributions especially critical now but they are always attractive targets for competitors.

Trying to blame those at the top
Many middle managers are having to deliver bad news these days. In such circumstances, it is often human nature to outline, or the very least hint, to your team that you would have done things differently, but the choice wasn't yours.

Yet, while this may temporarily take the heat off of you, it sends the message that you are out of sync with the company's leaders, which may be disconcerting to staff, argued Robert Half.

Instead it makes more sense simply to present the changes and the reasons behind them, including how your firm will persevere to come out the other end.

Not asking for employees' help in expanding client relationships
It is important to ask staff members to think about things they can do to help achieve business goals without sacrificing productivity, the research recommended.

When appropriate, involve your team in efforts to generate new business. This can mean expanding relationships with existing clients as well as identifying and pursuing new prospects.

Making work "mission impossible"
Hiring freezes and tighter budgets will often mean one person is doing the work of two or more people. If this is the case, it is important to help your employees identify which projects are mission-critical.

Delegate remaining tasks, bringing in temporary professionals if necessary, or put these items on hold – this will help you avoid overwhelming your staff, it argued.

Shifting the focus from the front lines
Client service matters even more when times are tough. Are you doing everything possible to make sure your front-line professionals have the right attitude and send the right messages? If these employees come across as indifferent or inexperienced, you could lose both prospective and existing customers.

Waiting to try new things
Even in uncertain times, playing it safe can backfire. If you have a promising new service offering or client niche you want to pursue, don't wait for a turnaround to act. By taking well-calculated risks, you can get a jump on competitors and possibly carve out an additional revenue stream, argued Robert Half.

"In today's business environment, supervisors are under pressure to accomplish more with fewer resources," said Max Messmer, chairman and chief executive of Robert Half International.

"The good news is that a great deal can be learned from the strategies managers have employed in past downturns – both those that worked well and those that missed the mark," he added.

This imperative to ensure that employees, even more so these days, feel engaged and challenged was also highlighted last week in research by consultancy Watson Wyatt.

This found that, when employees were highly engaged, their companies enjoyed 26 per cent higher productivity, had a lower risk of high staff turnover and were more likely to attract top talent.

Such organisations had also earned 13 per cent greater total returns to shareholders over the past five years.

It also highlighted the value of having fully engaged employees in the midst of a downturn, pointing out that they tended to miss a fifth fewer days and that three quarters of them exceeded or far exceed performance expectations.

They also tended to be more supportive of organisational change and resilient in the face of change, the poll of more than 13,000 workers concluded.

Finally, if you are worried that your team is less engaged than it might be, this afternoon might be a good time to be watching them closely.

According to European research by British recruitment website Experteer.co.uk, the busiest hour for online job searches is 3pm on a Thursday.

In fact, most job hunting is done during work hours, it concluded, with employees making the most of workplace internet access.

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