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Posts Tagged ‘layoffs

Unsupported by Evidence

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I was recently on a panel at a local meeting in NYC of Industrial Organizational Psychologists and after much discussion I made a statement. I said that as a field we have almost completely and utterly failed at bridging the gap between the science and research that we do, the evidence-based and experimental knowledge that we gain and those who are out there in the world writing about people at work or organizations in the lay press, or those in organizations, making day-to-day decisions about them which affect both the organizations and the people within them. After all most of the information about people at work is just “common sense” isn’t it? And I am a person and I work, so I guess that makes me an expert.

Unfortunately, much of that “common sense” is not supported by the facts and in some cases the facts support the opposite conclusion or the common sense is generated by those who have an agenda in which facts are simply inconvenient. Here are some of the more common statements that I keep running across that either have no basis in reality, are the opposite of the actual evidence, rest on very shaky expansions or extrapolations of a small kernel of observation, or are based on a small handful of people or organizations at one tail or the other of a distribution, but ignore the vast majority of those in the “fat part” or middle of the distribution.

  • Statement: People will find jobs once their unemployment checks run out, a social safety net is an incentive not to work.

o   Reality: The vast majority of people want to positively contribute to society, as it makes them feel valued. People want to feel valued, it is a universal. The data show that people would rather be overworked than underworked and the desire to work and contribute is not diminished in societies with strong social safety nets. Can you find people who fit the above statement? Sure, but not the vast majority.

  • Statement: The various generations want and expect different things from the work environment.

o   Reality: There is simply no evidence to support the notion that different generations want different things from work. Rather the differences often cited are driven by life stage and economic opportunity. In other words, give a person a mortgage and kids in college and job security becomes more important to them. A person right out of college with no responsibilities or financial obligations will act similarly regardless of which generation they come from. Because life stages take a rather long time to get though they give the appearance of being generationally driven.

  • Statement: People join companies and leave managers.

  Reality: Are there “bad” managers out there that have driven people out of an organization? Absolutely. But the majority of people join an organization and then leave when they don’t see a promising future for themselves within the organization. Sometimes that feeling is caused by a bad manager, and sometimes by the simply reality of a mismatch between a person’s career expectations and what the organization can offer. And sometimes it is simply a person’s life situation. The next time you are with a large group of people ask for a show of hands of how many of them left their last job because of a bad boss.

  • Statement: A good interviewer can determine if a person is a “fit” for an organization.

  Reality: We have known for a very long time that interviewers can actually diminish the ability to predict whether someone will succeed in an organization. An interviewer makes judgments that are often not based on job relevant characteristics.

  • Statement: Lie detector tests can determine if someone is lying and can be useful in making hiring decisions.

o   Reality: The evidence that lie detectors actually work and can determine if someone is lying is not there. And it is absolutely for certain that people with low affects can lie to lie detectors and get away with it. Lie detectors work on the notion that someone telling a lie will become more stressed and emotional and someone telling the truth will remain calm. The reality is that someone, even an innocent person, hooked to a lie detector and being asked about crimes will become stressed. (Generating false positives.) You might as well tie the person to a log and throw them in a river. If they float they are guilty and should be executed. If they sink and drown they are innocent, but unfortunately still dead.

  • Statement: Money doesn’t motivate people on the job.

o   Reality: Money is a great motivator (ask those on Wall Street). Money tends to show up on statistically generated lists of drivers of job satisfaction when people perceive themselves are being paid unfairly. When they perceive themselves as being paid fairly for the work they do, it tends to diminish in importance. People who claim money is not a motivator often seem to be people whose job it is to keep employments costs down.

  • Statement: It is good to regularly reorganization a company. It keeps people sharp; it keeps them on their toes.

  Reality: Organizations that regularly reorganize are consistently having people learning the ropes of new positions. In several studies it has been shown that better performance is achieved by people who have been in positions for longer periods of time then by people who are switched from job to job.

  • Statement: In business downturns, laying-off people is the best course of action.

o   Reality: If you can’t afford to pay people you need to get your costs down or you cease to exist. However, there is a good deal of evidence that shows that organizations that resist layoffs in down-cycles outperform as the economy recovers.

  • Statement: Women are more risk adverse than men, so if a job requires risk taking women are not a good fit.

o   Reality: It is pretty easy to find women who are more risk tolerant than many men. This is bias pure and simple and based on stereotypes.

Many of these statements are what Paul Krugman, the Nobel winning economist and NY Times columnist calls “Zombie Ideas”. Zombie ideas are statements that should have been killed by the evidence but refuse to die. From my perspective the field of Industrial Organizational Psychology, which is often concerned about publishing in scientific journals, (not that there is anything wrong with that), has a lot more work to do in getting our knowledge out into the mainstream and accepted.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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June 13, 2014 at 6:53 am

Uphill in the Snow, Both Ways

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“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as the end.”

Immanuel Kant

After reminding my daughter what is was like when I gave birth to her, with my wife smiling peculiarly in the background, I often remind her of what things were like when I was growing up. I regale her with stories of how we made do with so little compared to today. For instance, I don’t know how many times I have described how I used to carry my little sister to and from school on my back, while barefoot in the snow, uphill, both ways – – before breakfast. And how when my shoes got a little small, how we would cut off the toes (of the shoes), to make them last just a bit longer, or how we lived in a house so small, that you had to be careful not to break the window in the back when you put the key in the front door to unlock it. And after amusing ourselves just a bit with these tales, it tends to take on a more somber note as we realize just how lucky we really are.

When we were kids we had a much better standard of living than what our parents had and lived in much better circumstances, and if you go back one additional generation, circumstances and living conditions were truly awful. My mom’s parents had gotten as far as Ellis Island in the late 1910’s before being told that the quota was full. They were given a choice of Canada or Cuba and I guess Cuba sounded warmer. So my mom was born in Havana, Cuba, her first language was Spanish with a heavy dose of Yiddish, and Russian. Her dad started off manufacturing ties in the living room of their small rental apartment at night and then took to the streets during the day to sell his wares. For one of her birthdays she got a roller skate, just one, as her parents could not afford one for each foot, so she learned to skate using just one of those old fashioned skates with four wheels, one in each corner. When her shoes did wear out, with a hole in the bottom, her father would carefully cut newspapers to line the shoes so that they would last just a bit longer. And after that unexpected side trip and struggle in Cuba, twenty-some years later they finally made it to the USA, their dream, where my mom and her parents eventually became naturalized US citizens. She was introduced by a cousin to my dad, who was returning from WWII, after serving in the army in Europe, doing stints in England, France and Germany, and they soon fell in love and got married.

My dad, of course, had no end to the stories he could tell about what it was like growing up in Providence and Brooklyn. He was the oldest son of three, born in 1920, just a day after his parents landed in New York and that accident of timing made him an instant US citizen. He remembered how horse drawn carts would deliver milk and other goods to the various neighborhoods as he was growing up and how a Coke and hotdog was 5 cents. His father worked repairing radiators in the streets of the lower east side of New York (and was exposed to some nasty chemicals that likely finally killed him) and eventually saved up enough money to open a small candy shop in Brooklyn, and after that did not work out, became a furrier in the garment district. Two of my grandparents three sons fought for this country in WWII, one in the Pacific Theater (who slightly exaggerated his age at enlistment) served in the Navy and one in the European Theater in the Army. The third son was too young at the start of the war to serve. All three brothers now lay side-by-side in a cemetery just north of New York City.

The thing that is the most remarkable about these stories is that while the details of the events may be, the essence of the stories are not unique, with the vast majority of families in the USA today able to share similar stories of their own family’s struggles and tumults as they sought to gain a foothold in this great country. When you look at the bigger picture, we are a nation, by and large, of immigrants and we are all more similar than we are different. The drive and desire that the immigrants brought with them powered us to the heights that we have achieved. Yet there are those who tend to look for the differences between us rather than the similarities that bind us together. Differences can of course be found if you want, but we are better served by examining and building on our similarities. Most of us for instance, want a better future for our children than what we or our ancestors may have had or at least one similar to our own. All of us want to be treated with respect and dignity, our humanity being recognized and valued. We all want to be given a fair shake by society, an equal chance to succeed, as others have had. And we all want to be able to pursue our cherished dreams, our happiness that our constitution lists as a fundamental right.

The same holds true in the world of work, and no one should be surprised by that for the world of work is nothing more than a reflection of our society as a whole.

Utilitarian philosophy as described by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham is a worldview that societies should exist and decisions should get made in service of the greater good, majority rules. That logic can be used when laying off workers, the greater good of preserving the organization and jobs for the other employees being served. But it is not difficult to knock holes in the efficacy of this approach for every situation. For instance, say you were a doctor and had 5 very sick people in your office. Two needed kidneys, one a lung, one a heart, one a liver. In the next room you had one healthy patient. That one healthy patient, if sacrificed, could save the lives of the 5 other people and thereby increase the greater good, by donating the needed organs. Does that one person, representing a minority in that doctor’s office have rights to keep his organs, even though it would serve the greater good to give them up? Of course it becomes rather obvious that we don’t make decisions that way when it comes to such an example. But that argument was used by the advocates of Proposition 8 in California which barred non-heterosexual marriage, that simply because the majority (52%) of Californians voted for it, that homosexuals and lesbians were forfeit of their rights. What if the 5 sick patients in the doctor’s office voted to have the organs removed from the only healthy patient? Would that fly?

John Locke, widely known as the father of liberalism, countered that approach by stating that man has certain inalienable rights, that even if the majority or the greater good is not served, that each individual has the right to life, liberty and property, which Thomas Jefferson broadened out later on to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One major point of Locke and Jefferson is that majority rule could not simply erase the rights of an individual even if that individual was a minority of one; these inalienable rights were fundamental and as such could not be pushed aside by legislative decree. And building on that, Kant’s moral imperative can be summed up as not treating people as a means to achieving your own self-serving goals, but treating them in accordance to their humanity, as humanity is the end state which we all have in common.

Back to the world of work. Many organizations today benefit from their ability to promote their products as being “green”. One recent research study concluded that being green was not a passing fad, but that it is here to stay and those companies that operate in a green fashion are more likely to have greater increases in sales than those with similar products, but are not as green or green at all. So here is a question that I pose. Given what roles humans have in organizations, how do we create organizations that are “GREEN” when it comes to their PEOPLE and not just around their products and services? How do we employ people in a sustainable fashion? How to they treat people so that they support the notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and treat people for the sake of their humanity and not as a means to an organizational end? Are the rights of the individual forfeit when it comes to organizational or employee life? What are the obligations of organizations to operate in such a manner that reflect the greater values that we as a society have adopted?

I would expect, of course, a great diversity of thought.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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August 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Employee Attitudes during this Recession

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“When the tide goes out, you can see who’s been swimming naked.”

Warren Buffet on leadership in a recession.

How do employees react during a recessionary period? What happens to their attitudes about work and the work environment? What about their perceptions towards leadership? And most importantly do those attitudes, or shifts in attitudes actually affect organizational performance? The information that has been distributed on this topic over the last couple of years has been somewhat less than clear, or at the very least has been sending mixed interpretive messages. Some of the reported data has indicated that employees on a whole are less positive, less engaged or as some term it actively disengaged. That finding could represent a possible reaction to the somewhat harsh measures that some leaders adopted as they attempted to increase the odds of organizational survival during a deep recession.

Other reported findings strongly affirmed that employees are more positive now than prior to this recessionary period, possibly as a result of realizing how ugly things are on the outside, so the inside is looking pretty good. That would be a result underpinned by both frame of reference comparisons and the notions of cognitive dissonance, the need to resolve conflictual cognitive positions (e.g. even though I used to really hate it here, the place must not be so bad since I am staying). Categorical statements, that something is all one way or the other, black or white, raise my warning antennas and so one is left wondering, is it possible to look across the various reported results, many of them stated in a categorical fashion, and make some sense of it all? Scott Brooks, Walter Reichman and I did just that and here is a summary of some of what we found.

Methodological observations regarding the reviewed reports:

Some of the reports we reviewed1 are based on client data, meaning data that has been collected from clients during the course of a consulting firm running their employee surveys. Client data over the course of a few years can change, depending on which clients the consulting firm happens to have, what survey cycles clients are on etc. One industry for instance that may be well-represented in the norms during normal economic times like retail, and has been hard hit by the recession may cut costs by delaying or canceling their survey, and so their industry may be underrepresented in the data during a recessionary period if the norms are client based. So when examining client data over time you may not be looking at an apples-to-apples comparison even if the data is coming from a single source such as a consulting company.

Additionally, surveys of clients that occur during recessions may represent clients that are weathering the recessionary storm slightly better than most, since the budget for collecting the data has not been axed, or the data may be coming from organizations that are deep adherents (at least more so than others) to the notions of collecting and measuring certain aspects of employee attitudes, employee engagement being one of those. And of course the employees themselves who are being surveyed in client based norms are the survivors, those who have not been laid-off, which may also have an impact on their attitudes, especially when compared to the general population. One approach to correcting some of the issues with client-based research is the use of a standard basket of companies for tracking purposes, similar to the Dow Jones Industrial Average methodology. That could be achieved through a consortium of companies who agree to share their results. That would fix the problem of which companies are included (since it would be standardized) but not who from each company is included (during a recession we would still be surveying only survivors).

Some of the reports that have attempted to shed light on the state of employee attitudes during this recession are based on random sample surveys or stratified random samples (meaning you make sure certain demographic categories, such as senior managers, or females etc. are adequately represented). These data are not client based, but rather are gathered from people who have agreed to complete surveys, usually for some kind of incentive, for instance, a chance to be entered into a lottery for each survey they complete. These surveys include a cross section of people, some employed, some under or unemployed but if sampled correctly are representative of the population as a whole, not necessarily the employed population, or the population from companies that care enough about employee attitudes to be out there measuring it. Depending on how the sample is drawn they may come from private and public sector organizations, government as well as not-for profit. It may include those working full-time as well as part-time. One issue of course here is the motivation that these individuals have for completing the survey. Many of them, we have to assume, are not doing it for the sake of the research, but rather in a fashion to maximize their ability to achieve whatever incentive is being offered. (That is why it is called an incentive.) That creates a question in many minds of just how these people will respond, and will they take the survey seriously.

One conclusion from looking at all of the data that gets put out is that unless it is clearly stated in the report, and often times it is not, and the methodology explicit, you really don’t know who is included in either client-based or in random sample survey reports and hence the conclusions from one report are not all that easily compared against another.

Some broad trends we saw:

  • “Engagement” during this recession has not declined.  With an eyeball meta-analysis, the actual change may be slight improvement, perhaps 2-4 percentage points over the last year.   This “surfs across” potentially meaningful differences in sampling, methodology and varied definitions of how you measure engagement. But those institutions that describe engagement as declining are in the minority.
  • Not all employee opinions act the same way, moving up or down in lockstep.
    • Stress is increasing.
    • Opinions about leaders have fluctuated.
    • US Employee Confidence hit a low 1Q09 and has not returned to the 2Q08 baseline.
    • One conclusion is that “engagement” may not be the best indicator of the strain of the recession on the employee population and hence organizational performance.
    • There is no “overall” recession impact across all survey topics
  • There is evidence of polarization within some organizations. While different across different studies, there seem to be segments (levels, functions, etc.) within the organization showing divergent trends:
    • Perhaps while engagement goes up, there is a growing core of actively disengaged employees.
    • Executives and middle management respond differently, though exactly which layer feels the squeeze most keenly is not clear from the reports (and they likely differ organization-by-organization… as is clear in some cases among our own clients).
  • Increasing frustrations (driven by increasing workload and lowered rewards/benefits) among high performers/high-potentials put them more at-risk for eventual voluntary turnover.

Some More Detail:

One concept created a good number of years ago called Employee Confidence© has been tracked quarterly since June 20083, by asking employees about attitudes towards their company’s internal as well as external performance (organizational performance). Internal covers such areas as business processes and leadership and external covers the attractiveness and value of products and services offered to the market as well as competitive positioning. Also tracked has been people’s perception of their personal situation, again both internally and externally. The internal situation deals with perceptions of job security and future prospects at current employers, and the external with being able to land on their feet elsewhere if necessary by finding another job. (To be part of this tracking study, which cut across the 12 largest economies globally, you needed to be: an over 18, full-time employee in the private sector, in a company with at least 100 employees. Data was collected quarterly on random samples of 5000 in the USA and 1000 in each of the other countries, with the exception of Russia where the number was 500. Incentives were used. The data was compared to known demographic characteristics of the working population in each of those countries.) Taking a step back from all the data, both from this Employee Confidence sample and from client based data, and drawing some insights and overall conclusions, or at least observations what we see as highlights include:

About Employee Engagement:

In 2008/2009 you generally did not see declining employee engagement scores at organizations (there was the occasional exception). The scores were flat at worst but most were actually rising with many hitting heights not seen within the organization prior. This was in spite of the general concern among clients that engagement would decline during the recession. Some of this can be attributed to good management taking action on important issues and some is environmental, a response to the concern that people have about losing their jobs. One notable study had a client with 7 point rise in their employee engagement score across about 25,000 people. A determination was made that 2-3 points of that rise was likely due to management actions and 4-5 points was due to the environment. (Drop me a note if you want to know how that was done

About Employee Satisfaction:

In many cases however, items that were markers of the employee’s current state of satisfaction with their situation declined. By way of explanation, a person can be very unhappy with increased workload and stress, with their 401k losing substantial value, with no company match, no raises, friends being laid off, increased concern about their own job security, perhaps seeing management taking care of themselves before the rank and file, but that person can still be engaged in their work. As an example, a person can be very engaged at their employer making buggy whips as Henry Ford is in the next building figuring out how to mass produce cars. They are engaged, working diligently to produce the best buggy whips in the world, but their level of engagement does not stop the world from changing nor does it assuage increased concern at seeing the world changing with perhaps the employer not changing or not changing fast enough to keep up. A corollary to this is the false notion that employees who complain are not engaged. They in fact may be the most engaged as they are trying to communicate to the organization information to head off a potential disaster as they see it.

While some people/organizations measure satisfaction and engagement with the same items, they are clearly different constructs. (Of course there is no agreed upon set of items in use to measure engagement within the employee survey industry which may account for some of the reported differences).

About Job Prospects and Job Security:

Being able to find other employment if necessary, which is normally very favorably rated, began to decline and has remained at or near the bottom of all the items tracked. Most normal people by nature tend to rate their skill sets highly and see value (beyond what others may see) in what they can do.  This makes them normally very confident in their ability to find another job should the need arise. The precipitous decline in this dimension is a fundamental shift in people’s confidence (it has rocked their world and how they self-perceive) and affects all sorts of behavior including buying patterns and a willingness to tolerate intolerable conditions at an employer. As this score recovers we will see people who had been staying with an employer because of a lack of opportunity elsewhere move on with a corresponding increase in voluntary turnover. This may be starting already as for the last 3 months voluntary quits has surpassed layoffs as why people leave jobs and for the 15 months prior to that layoffs surpassed quits.4 This finding is perhaps giving an inkling of what is to come.

Perceptions of job security at the beginning of the recession when all the layoffs started were understandably in steep decline. This lasted through the first quarter of 2009 and roughly corresponded to when a massive bulge of layoffs occurred with 3979 mass layoff events occurring in 1Q09, a record high affecting 705,000 people5. This also corresponded to the lowest Employee Confidence scores recorded. However, once that bottom was hit there was a rather sharp rebound later in the year. One possible interpretation is that employees felt that the organizations had cut to the bone and could not cut any more. Employees felt that they had survived so far and so where likely to weather the storm. Exceptions to this pattern of decline and then rebound occurred in industries that were weathering the recessionary storm rather well including healthcare, education, government and food service. They did not see nearly as much of a decline. Females were more positive about job security than males, not because they were females, but because of an over-representation in industries that were doing ok. The gap between males and females disappeared when the rebound occurred, possibly due to the males feeling that all the cutting that was to be done had been carried out.

About Business Process:

During this recession it was pretty clear in the data that the majority of employers were trying to cut their way to profitability, rather than innovating with new attractive offerings or by moving into new markets. They were revamping internal processes, laying off people, cutting budgets and benefits. They were looking inward rather than outward to find solutions to their performance problems. And while it is always healthy to improve internal organizational performance, in this case it is a rather risk adverse approach compared to modifying the products and/or services being offered. It is more of a sure thing to cut back on costs rather than create products that people find attractive, even in a recession, as a way to protect margins in the short term. Not every company took that path however and historically companies that have been started in recessionary periods included: HP, GE, Burger King, Fedex, Microsoft, CNN, Trader Joes, and our own OrgVitality. Each one creating a path to success based on offering attractive and valued products and services to the marketplace that were relevant to the economic time period in which they found themselves. In this recession Autodesk, Nucor, Colgate Palmolive, Apple, Coca Cola, Target, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and Google among others for instance have done quite well by developing new and innovative products and by moving into new markets.2

About Organizational Effectiveness and Leadership:

At the beginning of the recession, the back-half of 2008, management was given the benefit of the doubt and was given stable or slightly increasing scores from the rank and file regarding their job performance. Of course you need to keep in mind that the rank and file during this period are the survivors, those who had not yet lost their jobs. As it appeared that the recession was going to get really ugly in the first quarter of 2009, the rank and file lost a lot of confidence in management and performance ratings on management plummeted. The realization hit that there was no magic bullet that the recession was going to be painful and deep and of a long duration and the blame, at least partially, was laid at management’s feet.

Ratings of leadership over the last year and a half or so have been very volatile with some organizations reporting extremely favorable ratings on leadership while at the same time others are reporting the poorest scores of recent memory. There has also been more divergent trends within organizations, often with vital groups perhaps feeling more stress than others (e.g., VP levels) declining dramatically while other levels are able to maintain or improve. A sharp recovery was noted in the perceptions of the job being done by management, as rated by employees, during the back half of 2009 as many of the programs designed to temper the recession began to have an effect among those still employed and further draconian layoffs were not as prevalent.

About Geographic differences in the USA:

If you compared the attitudes of employees against the unemployment level at the state level a significant relationship was found. In other words, in general those states that were exhibiting higher levels of unemployment were generally those where employees had the lowest levels of confidence. Some interesting patterns and exceptions to that statement emerged.

Those employees in southern states tended to be more positive than their unemployment level suggested they should be. In general, those in the mid-west were less positive than they should have been with the notable exceptions of Nebraska, the most positive single state and the state with the lowest level of unemployment, and Michigan with the highest level of unemployment and the second lowest level of employee confidence. Those states located in the northeast and west had employee attitudes as predicted by their unemployment levels with the exception of Oregon where employee attitudes were less positive than they should have been. The states that were exceptions certainly had the attitudes going in the predicted direction given their unemployment levels, it is just that the corresponding employee attitudes were more exaggerated than expected in either the positive or negative direction.6


  • The recession has put organizations and employees on edge.  While dealing with the increased stress and load created by aggressive cost-cutting, employees have a heightened sensitivity to leadership messages and missteps and organizational cues regarding the future.  Critically, employees watch how the crisis has revealed the organization’s commitment (or not) to its stated values.
  • As a result of this sensitivity, organizations may experience greater swings in engagement and/or satisfaction through the recession (the two not necessarily being related or moving in the same direction), though the swings may go in either direction and may be concentrated within a specific population. These swings may occur within key segments (e.g., management layers, functional areas or performance levels).
  • But changes in survey results seen across clients lead to a conclusion: the recession isn’t the only cause of changes in employee opinions and engagement in particular; it’s the organization’s response to the recession.
  • In many cases, employees have rallied behind their organizations’ recovery efforts, and are as engaged or more engaged than ever.  In part, they are not simply comparing the “now” to what was.  Clearly they understand that the crisis has demanded dramatic change, and they have hunkered down to help.  To some extent they may compare themselves to other cases of what might be, for example to the failings of other organizations or to their unemployed acquaintances.
  • One way to sum it up is that the recession has become a test of Vitality including strategy, values, behaviors, organizational agility and resiliency.  Organizations are not passive players regarding the degree to which decision-making authority is sucked upwards, open communication is stifled, leadership commitment to values are maintained, or the emphasis on service remains central.  Certainly, it has become harder to invest in employees.  But in many cases, employees understand that and may take even greater pride in how their organizations handle the recession.

1Sources of published findings which were reviewed included: OrgVitality, McKinsey, CLC, Metrus, Valtera, Modern Survey, Kenexa and Towers Perrin among others.

2The Business Week 50, Business Week, March 26, 2009

3The Employee Confidence Framework was developed by Jeffrey M. Saltzman.

4 MSNBC June 9th, 2010

5Bureau of Labor Statistics;

6Saltzman & Brooks, “Strategic Surveying in the Global Marketplace and the Role of Vitality Measures”, appearing in “Going Global” (Kyle Lundby, editor), 2010 Jossey-Bass

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Healing Employee Emotional Cracks

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During this recessionary period many employees feel that they have been left holding the short straw, being treated as a readily available commodity or simply as an unnecessary cost by their organization. And while large percentages have been laid off in many organizations, the biggest concern that many organizations now have is how do we re-engage the survivors? How do we make them feel like the organization cares about them and that they should be loyal to the organization, working diligently for its success, when the organization has demonstrated quite recently and vividly that it will cut through them, as a warm knife cuts through butter, in order to insure the survival of the organization as a whole? How can the organization make employees trust them again, how can it turn them once again into loyal employees? Exacerbating the challenge in some organizations are the rewards that certain executives heaped upon themselves as they laid off large components of the workforce.

If you prick an inflated latex rubber balloon with a pin, the popping sound you hear when the balloon bursts is not from the rush of air escaping through the pin-hole in the balloon, rather the pop you hear is from the speedy propagation of cracks in the latex skin of the balloon breaking the sound barrier. The more tightly stretched out the balloon skin is, the more energy it contains and the larger the pop when that energy is finally released. The popping noise is literally the noise of the balloon tearing itself apart.

Employees have been asked to do more and more with less and less, and as salaries have been fixed or reduced, 401k matches canceled, health care benefits evaporated and people laid off, the organizational latex has been stretched almost to the breaking point and it contains an enormous amount of energy waiting to be released. As the economy improves some organizations which are not perceived by their employees as acting at all to preserve jobs, or as looking out for the interests of the average employee have created situations where it will take but the prick of a pin for organizational life-threatening cracks to rapidly propagate throughout the organization.

The popping sound you may hear propagating throughout the organization may take the form of skilled and valuable employees leaving, lower quality in products and services delivered to customers and clients, a lowering in productivity and efficiency, an increase in absenteeism, employees not acting as brand advocates, and an openness to third party representation and other forms of protection from the reoccurrence of the abuses people perceive they received. Employees have been on an emotional roller coaster that have left them bruised and battered these last few years and we may learn something on how to help employees heal from this trauma by taking a closer look at what we know about human emotion.

Emotions evolved and became a survival mechanism in animals long before humans came onto the world stage. As we evolved into humans these pre-existing emotional mechanisms came along with us, and they developed with 2 essential elements. They turn on when the external world demands it, and they turn off when the external world situation changes. Try this experiment (Darwin did). Put your face up near the glass of a poisonous snake exhibition at a zoo. Tell yourself logically that the snake can’t hurt you and you will hold your ground, not moving if the snake lunges at you. When the snake lunges, coming towards your face you will automatically jump back, you will not be able to help yourself as a natural emotional instinct (fear) will take over, attempting to preserve your life. The underlying mechanisms that generate emotions are generally now categorized as fear (imminent threat), sadness (loss of attachment or status), anger (blocked goal pursuit), disgust (exposure to or ingestion of unpleasant substances), and happiness (success in goal pursuit). The neurobiological mechanisms that cause these states to arise are now well understood and can actually be seen by brain imaging techniques as people experience them.

The immediate emotions that employees in organizations during this period have experienced include fear of layoff or from the implications of salary cuts, sadness when their friends have been let go or from having to take lower level reassignments, anger from having career and life goals seemingly further out of reach and if the executives are perceived at having enriched themselves at the expense of others, disgust. There is also a well-document notion of survivor guilt, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can come from the happiness of not losing your job, while those around you have fallen, making you feel as though you somehow bear some responsibility.

The humans mind has evolved beyond primitive real-time underlying emotional mechanisms and one part of that evolution is our ability to create mental models which allow us to think emotionally about things in the past and to anticipate the emotions we may experience regarding future events. For instance a feeling of depression or feeling low can be achieved simply by thinking of negative events that we experienced in the past and how many times have you heard the line “imagine yourself in a happier place” as a way to get people beyond the emotions they may be currently experiencing.

Emotional problems and mental illness can occur when our modeling of past or future events are interpreted by our bodies as immediate and real, and our bodies react accordingly, never switching off the emotional thrusters, if you will. Some therapies for treating anxiety or depression focus not only on the emotional state itself, but on the individual mental model which allows those emotions to become all encompassing. If you can control the mental model you will be better able to control the emotions it engenders. As an example one treatment for survivor’s guilt in the workplace involves helping people come to the realization that they are not the reason why others have lost their jobs and that they too are suffering. Once their own suffering is recognized, they can come to grips with it and move on with their lives.

As an aside, because I am writing part of this on Valentine’s Day, in contrast “love” is typically thought about as having 3 separate biochemical processes which act in concert rather than as an underlying emotional state. One part is arousal or the sex drive, which causes you to seek out potential mating partners. Another is the feeling of “love” which has been tied to levels of cortisol, which kick in during stressful situations and possibly to serotonin. Lower levels of serotonin can cause obsessive thinking and both of these hormones together focus your attention on one person at a time. In addition, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, are released during orgasm, and can make you feel deeply attached to or responsible for the person you are with. The third component or mechanism attributing to the feeling of love is attachment, and while the underlying hormonal process there is unknown, the mechanism creates an ability to tolerate another person long enough to have offspring and possibly raise them until they can be independent. When a person says they love their job, it would be very interesting to measure their hormone levels at work and see if any similar chemicals are released during the work day.

Emotional distress is not an isolated event which only a few people experience and even though many are uncomfortable talking about it, a new study that aimed to estimate what percent of the population suffered from either depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol dependence or marijuana dependence for at least a brief period, found that 60% of the population, a majority, experienced symptoms that rose to the level of benefiting from treatment by the age of 32. By middle age that number is likely to be even higher. There is no reason to assume that the percentages for people in the workplace would be any different.

It was also found that the most of those sufferers recovered after a brief period either on their own or with professionally administered treatment. Emotional distress and some mental illnesses, rather than commonly thought of as affecting a small portion of the population, stigmatizing them with a life-long affliction, would be more accurately described as a passing cold, at some point in your life you will likely get it, but then are very likely to get over it. The study’s author stated, “Like flu, if you follow a cohort of people born in the same year, as they age almost all of them will sooner or later have a serious bout of depression, anxiety or a substance abuse problem.”

Taking employee’s emotional states into consideration, an organization that desires to re-engage its employee population at this time has at a minimum the following options at its disposal:

  1. If the senior management team has lost all credibility with the employee population, this may be a good time for them to retire and for succession plans to kick in.
  2. The distress the employees have gone through should be publically recognized and discussed. At the same time the stress the organization has experienced should be recognized along with the steps taken to improve the resiliency of the organization from a reoccurrence.
  3. Counseling should be given to those employees who would benefit from treatment.
  4. The organization should work to restore employee confidence in its functioning including:
    1. improving internal functioning, changing and modernizing the way the work gets done
    2. create more competitive products that are attractive and in demand within its markets
    3. describe the level of job security the remaining employees have and the conditions that would allow that security to be maintained
    4. describe a compelling vision of employees personal futures creating a model of the future that breaks with the negative emotions that may be swirling
    5. build career security for the employees by providing training and development opportunities that are transferable to other organizations, building self-confidence.
  5. Listen to employees, though feedback mechanisms such as skip-level interviews and employee surveys, open channels of communications that you may have closed during the recession.
  6. Create a social communities within the organization to help bring the employees together, allowing them to support each other.
  7. Provide the employees with the tools, resources, information, training etc. that they need to succeed and thrive within the new organizational environment.

Much of the emotional distress that employees are experiencing will heal fairly rapidly as people tend to be resilient, and if given the right conditions that allow them to behave in a resilient fashion, most will be able to rise to the challenge. Both the organization and the employees have a role to play in assuring organizational success and the best path forward is to transparently discuss the past events as well as the future vision of what the organization can become, and then acting vigorously on that vision.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 14, 2010 at 8:53 pm

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