Do You Really Want Fearful Employees?

by | June 17, 2009

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"Some people take the time off but feel bad aboutdoing so, out of loyalty to bosses and colleagues left to carry the workload.Others work quietly – and sometimes openly – through furloughs, because they fearfor the long-term safety of their positions and hope their self-sacrificeimpresses the management.

 And some say the message from the management is unclear,leaving employees wondering: Is this real time off?"

  – From a NewYork Times article by Susan Saulny and Robbie Brown

As far as cost-cutting measures go, arranging workerfurloughs is up there with the least painless, right? In fact, the wayfurloughs share the pain around is almost socialistic, allowing more employeesto maintain at least some income while the company adjusts to harder times. Itwould appear that there's just one problem with the theory: many companiesstill expect to get through the same amount of work despite—in somecases—furloughing up to 20 percent of their capacity. 

It won't come as too much of a surprise to learn that manyworkers surveying the economic wasteland have come to the conclusion that,furloughed or not, they're going to keep showing up. While the New YorkTimes article quoted above makes it clear that the reasons for doing so aremanifold, it also gives the impression that the overriding atmosphere in theworkforce at the moment is one of fear—people working longer, harder, and forless money to try and ensure that they're not going to be handed a pink slip inthe event of further cuts.

Workers doing the same amount of work, or more, for lessmoney might sound like every employer's dream—especially in a recession—butit's worth bearing in mind what the Times piece is focusing on: the factthat employees were promised furloughs in exchange for a reduction in salary,but are now either finding the furlough time difficult to arrange, or are tooafraid of the consequences of actually using it. The result: what started as afurlough for many workers now remains one in name only; in reality, it's a paycut. Unlike employees who received pay cuts that were actually calledpay cuts, however, those who thought they were getting furloughs are entitledto feel more than a little betrayed by management if the promised time offdoesn't materialize. One worker cited in the article sums it up best:

"There was some optimism. It was a trade-off for sure,but people were O.K. The mood now, I would say, is down. People are working infear because they don't know what's going to happen next."

While some level of uncertainty and fear is inevitable inthese unprecedented times, it's important to recognize that they have limitationsas motivational factors; specifically, there's a fine line between anemployee's concern over their future driving them to greater heights anddriving them to look elsewhere for a more secure environment—and that goesdouble if those same employees feel they've been sold a bill of goods regardingfurlough time.

In short, if managers have promised employees additionaltime off, they need to enforce it. For everyone. Regardless of whether or notit's good for the business in the short term. Because in the long term, acompany or manager that promises an employee one thing and deliversanother—whether intentionally or not—is going to lose the trust of thatemployee and any others who come to hear about it. And when trust disappears,good employees will surely follow. So while employees "choosing" towork through furloughs might be good for your company in the short term,managers who allow it are setting themselves up for long-term pain.

Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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