Good human-resource management clearly starts at the top,” says Bernie Erven, agricultural economist at The Ohio State University. This is especially true if your operation is going through some bad times, which can be anything from a labor shortage, disease outbreak or general financial challenges.

“A business’ top managers set the tone and model the optimism necessary to weather the storm,” notes Erven. “It’s naive for the top managers to believe that they can be pessimistic, or unresponsive to the bad times, and be impatient with employees’ doubts without affecting their employees.”

If your operation is facing a tough time, Erven says you have four key challenges:

  • Keeping your attitude in check as it relates to the bad times, your employees and the future.
  • Developing a plan to work through the bad times.
  • Adjusting your human-resource practices.
  • Communicating with all of your employees.

Granted, every situation is different and a practice that works for your operation may not be as effective as another. Erven put together this list of practices that may make life a bit easier for you and your employees during challenging times.

  • Be honest about the bad times when hiring new employees. New employees will appreciate an interviewer’s accurate description of the situation and what is being done to work through the challenge.  
  • Be fair about workloads. Extra work with no explanation or adjustment in compensation leaves an impression of unfairness. That can fuel resentment.
  • Continue to reward high-quality employee performance. The rewards can be in forms other than pay raises. Knowing what each employee will appreciate and consider a reward is critical. Dinner at a nice restaurant may work for one employee while another may prefer tickets to a college basketball game.
  • Honor previous commitments. Canceling the commitment to an employee for two weeks of vacation time can have a significant negative impact on his or her morale, and that can spillover to co-workers.
  • Catch employees doing things right and say thank you. Stay on the lookout for extraordinary performance.
  • Avoid nitpicking the performance of stressed and tired employees. Nitpicking can make you appear insensitive to an employee’s effort. Tough times call for patience and sensitivity to what employees are going through.
  • Listen with an open mind to employees’ ideas about what they think the problems are and what can be done about those problems.
  • Provide new goals and new challenges for employees that will help the business get through the bad times. No matter how discouraged and skeptical employees may be, they still want something to believe in. 
  • Avoid reinforcing how bad the times are day after day. Help employees understand that other businesses are facing similar challenges, or may even be worse off.
  • Spare employees your managerial woes. Employees remember that when times were good, you may have been quite content to take credit for the successes. 
  • Avoid the myth that treating employees as friends and family will cause them to sympathize and be willing to sacrifice more. In fact, taking advantage of friends during bad times can damage relationships rather than make employees happy sufferers.
  • Continue to make employee management a priority. Not filling the shoes of departed workers suggests to the remaining employees that you are avoiding important decisions and management responsibilities. 

One of the bigger challenges you will have is to continue to communicate with your employees. This is important in good times, but becomes even more so when your business is struggling.

You will probably have several key items to discuss with employees. In particular, you need to communicate your attitudes about the present situation, and the future. 

You also need to communicate about any changes in human-resource practices. You can do this through staff meetings with other top managers or the employees, in small group meetings or through written reports and updates.

Employees also can take the initiative to talk to you, ask questions and offer solutions. This type of communication is usually informal and ultimately is the employee’s responsibility not yours.

Pay attention if employees seem to spend more time talking between themselves. This reflects their fears, a need to know more and an attempt to find their own insight into what you aren’t telling them.

Bad times, aren’t fun to deal with, but you have the ability to make the transition smoother for everyone involved in the business. Adjusting your human-resource practices is important.

Keep in mind, tough times don’t have to weaken the relationships you’ve built with your employees. On the contrary, handling employee issues well during bad times can strengthen the work force and employee commitment to your business.

If you would like more information on this or other human-resource management issues, you can reach Erven at his e-mail address erven.1@osu.edu

Breaking Down the Barriers
While communicating between all employee levels is important, there are several barriers to overcome. As an owner or manager, you are responsible for dealing with those barriers.

While it’s not feasible to completely remove all of the barriers, you can minimize their negative effects. Here, Bernie Erven, The Ohio State University employee specialist, shares a few points that can hinder the overall communication process:

  • Nonverbal communication. Employees may misunderstand the meaning of your actions, gestures, moods, absences and appearances of being stressed out. 
  • Perception. In bad times, employees are likely to treat their perception as if it were fact. Asking employees for feedback and a summary of their understanding about what is being communicated can be helpful.
  • The grapevine. News travels more rapidly by the grapevine than by formal communication channels. You need to work continuously to disprove rumors and misinformation.
  • Information overload. You can provide too much information to employees. For example, too many meetings, too many newsletters, too many long e-mails and too much time in small group discussions are examples of how employees sometimes get more information than they can absorb.  
  • Lack of candidness. Both you and your employees can fall into the trap of telling others what they think they want to hear versus what is candid and truthful.