Thursday, December 11, 2008

Connecting via LinkedIn

Are you “Linked-In”? I began using the LinkedIn website several months back, but never made full use of its linking abilities. Now, thanks to two savvy colleagues, I am a bit better educated about how it can help me, you, and other “links” to develop our business through this connection.

The most valuable thing I learned about the site was that it can be used to find an expert or a professional in a particular field or industry. By doing a simple search, the database reviews my links (connections) for matches, then goes on to review their links, and so on. The search then yields a list of all those who match the search criteria, and ranks them by how close a “link” they are to me. This makes it much easier to quickly find a reputable and recommended referral.
If you’d like to join my LinkedIn network, please do so!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Help in Handling Downsizing

Struggling with Downsizing?

Top Shelf Ideas that affect the Bottom Line

The impact of the economy has been intense and many businesses are in the midst of the devastation of down-sizing. Whether the cause was a reduction in demand, lack of revenue, or planning mishaps, the result is the same - layoffs are needed. This unfortunate news is often coupled with challenges in planning, for as most business leaders are focused on managing growth, few are skilled in dealing with a workforce contraction. There are many things to keep in mind when addressing cutbacks in personnel. One of the most important is that a business' ability to survive a downturn and later thrive in any forthcoming growth cycle is reliant upon making the right staffing decisions now.

Know What You Need

Often times, decisions about layoffs are made without sufficient regard and planning for future growth. Businesses that thrive when the economy improves do so by preparing themselves early on. Look at the current need for staff reductions and demand for work output. Will fewer people be conducting the same amount of work? Will staff be expected to fulfill additional or new duties than before? Likewise, consider how the situation will look like if things get worse. Will you still have enough of the "right" people available to pick up the slack? Finally, bear in mind that the staff you select now will be integral to the business' core as you prepare for later growth. Are you selecting the best and the brightest to be that core team?

Keep a Professional Perspective

One of the first and most important things to do is to plan who will be let go. This challenging and unfortunate task should not be made lightly using a simple equation of last hired, first fired. While it is important for staff morale to demonstrate that you value loyalty, following this concept will most likely leave you unprepared. Loyalty often works hand in hand with complacency. Frequently these staffers remain employed because they don't like change and don't make waves. While most employers have a strong number of such employees on staff, these personnel are rarely the standouts as hardest workers, visionaries, idealists, or constructionists - all staff that you will now need to get you through this turbulent time. Similarly, some long-standing workers have acquired a sense of entitlement and may be unwilling to work harder or take on more tasks - issues that will certainly undermine an already shattered workforce.

Stop Making It Personal

In reviewing your staff and determining who will be laid off, use a two columned approach. What does each person bring on a personal level, and what do they bring on a professional level? Keeping separate columns allows you to recognize all the positive and negative elements of the staff person without co-mingling the relative value of each set of skills. Perhaps Mary is warm, caring, and a 10-year veteran on the job - all very positive qualities. But professionally she doesn't meet deadlines, often comes to work late, and has never contributed with new ideas. Compare Mary to Jonas who has been at the company 1½ years. Though he gets along reasonably well with others, personally Jonas is a bit of an odd-ball. Professionally however he shows a lot of promise. He's made two useful suggestions which helped the department, and is always eager for a new challenge. Given these details, an outsider can easily see that Jonas is better suited to help the company through this turbulent time, however emotions and personal connections often make this type of decision incredibly challenging.

Handling the Fall-Out

Making tough decisions is hard, but it's only the first step in this battle. Next, and often much harder, is managing the staff that remains. While business owners and executives have the task of making tough decisions on who to keep and who to let go, it's also the employees who live with these decisions. Staff may feel angry, resentful, and sad as they take on more work without their favorite colleagues. They will likely experience fear and stress at both the increased workload and status of the economy. Some may want to quit in solidarity or otherwise undermine your efforts to create a stable workforce. Helping staff through these troubling times is crucial to the success of your business and will require honesty, communication, and strong leadership.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Top 5 Warning Signs Conflict in the Workplace NEEDS to be Addressed

Whether it’s 1:1 or a full team that is affected, workplace friction creates a drain on business as it lowers productivity, lessens commitment to the company, and ultimately leads to costly turnover. Here are the Top 5 warning signs that conflict or problems in the workplace NEED to be addressed:

1. Staff gossip and complaints – When these behaviors are on the increase take note. Gripes and complaints become exponentially damaging as staff jumps on board in support of each others issues and concerns.

2. Morale is low – A lack of effort at work, tardiness, absenteeism and problems with cooperation and teamwork are common signs of lowered morale. When morale drops, staff isn’t committed to doing the job well, they’re just collecting a pay check.

3. Client complaints – No one wants to lose a good client, but a good employee can be even more expensive (or impossible if it’s a partner, etc.) to replace. Common mistake here include allowing one or the other to go, or focusing only on the symptoms, such as a failure to return calls.

4. Reluctance to contribute – When staff don’t contribute during meetings it’s a clear sign that they lack the personal investment, trust in leadership or both in working at the company.

5. Staff Request for Help – This obvious sign of a problem is unfortunately often ignored. All too often managers, and sometimes HR, offer a band-aid of a solution, or redirect an employee to ignore an issue or find a way of solving it themselves. Ignoring the obvious, that it’s probably beyond the skill or comfort level of this employee to handle the problem alone, this sends a very negative message to that staff member about his value in the company.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Preventing Panic in the Workplace

Has the chaos of this economic climate proliferated into your work place? Employees and staff at all levels are experiencing financial panic in conjunction with the unrest on Wall Street and a sense of foreboding about an uncertain political and economic future. These legitimate concerns bring fear and confusion into our personal lives, and lead to issues of lowered morale and productivity in the business world. How can you help your staff put in their best efforts at work when they’re worried about layoffs, house payments, fuel costs, and inflation?

1. Talk to your employees– Communicate with staff about the impact of the current economic issues on your company and on their jobs. While this may sound dangerous, keep in mind that fear is far more damaging than knowledge. Fear immobilizes, while knowledge activates us. If layoffs are inevitable, let your staff know how deep the cuts will be. If cut-backs or staff reductions are only possible, let them know what needs to happen to prevent that outcome.

2. Get them involved – Once staff is aware of the problems that lie ahead, engage them in finding solutions. Some staff may wish to create a think-tank or team to brainstorm solutions; Shy contributors may benefit from an “open-door” policy allowing them to contribute ideas by approaching management/owners directly. By creating an arena for employee input, you also provide them with some control over the outcome.

3. Provide incentives – Perhaps productivity has diminished as gossip, worry, and complaints have infiltrated your business. While you can’t remove employee’s economic concerns, you can motivate them to work harder. Try using incentives that address their concerns. A $100 gas card or a $50 restaurant voucher has an immediate and tangible value – more so than a Starbucks gift card or a promise of an extra day’s vacation.

4. Demonstrate you care – When employees believe they’re important to the company and recognized for their efforts and commitment, they feel secure and rewarded. Demonstrating you care may be as simple as paying attention to your staff and being positive and encouraging in your conversations with them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Don’t Stall Out on the Business Highway

In mid-June I heard a report on the radio regarding the American Automobile Association (AAA). They stated that the number of roadside calls AAA is getting, due to vehicles running out of gas while on the road, has more than doubled from this time last year. The not-so-surprising explanation? Skyrocketing fuel prices.

I’ve noticed the same thing in the business world. As the impact of the economy and our undetermined political future causes concern, I’m seeing the movers, shakers and decision makers becoming still or indecisive in their business practices. In times of economic strain and an uncertain future, fear seems to have a paralyzing effect. Rather than spending the money that must be spent, be it on fuel for our car, or services for our business, some people are hunkering down and doing nothing…hoping that somehow this storm will pass them by.

Unfortunately that strategy doesn’t work. It leaves those people stranded on the side of the road while others, who accept the reality, move forward. Jack Hinsche, Managing Partner of the accounting firm Windes & McClaughry explains, “Peoples’ perception of this economic ‘recession’ has lead to cost control and managing of the bottom-line.” However, these cost-cutting decisions are not always logical. Hinsche notes that his firm is feeling the effect. “Collections and follow-up have become necessary. A typically prompt payment is being stretched to 90 days and more.” Hinsche continues, “People are pushing to the inevitable.”

Kenneth Keller, President of Renaissance Executive Forums, sees a better choice: Make the decision to spend money even when times are tough. Keller consults and trains executives and business owners. He observes “I find the economy to be okay for people who know how to use it as an opportunity.” At his company, “We are choosing to grow, not shrink. I have made the decision not to participate in any economic slowdown.” Both Hinsche and Keller recognize marketing as a key part of their plan to keep business moving. Hinsche comments on the necessity of “investing in core values.” Beyond marketing, his firm is committed to keeping with its “people first” culture. This means budget cuts have not been made in the areas of training, coaching or professional development. This is a particularly noteworthy choice; when you recognize that people are essential to a business just as fuel is essential to a vehicle…without them you’ll have no movement.

Safety in the Workplace

In turbulent times, a first step in managing your staff and your business is to create a safety net. Employees are under just as much stress and strain as their bosses, but often with far less to fall back on when times are tough. This is not the time to evoke panic. Keller notes, “For those that rely on others to generate an income (employees of a company), it is a scary time.”

Cutting out ancillary services is appropriate when it’s necessary to stave off reductions in the workforce, but when done simply to maintain the same profit margin, consider the message it sends to staff. If you are transparent with this decision making, you’re effectively telling your staff that they matter less than the level of profit for the business. This is a risky maneuver at best. If you do not tell them, the situation is liable to be even worse. Staff may assume this is a “last resort” and concern themselves with the possibility of layoffs or cutbacks. The snowballing effect as staff becomes concerned with job loss or salary cuts includes a drop in teamwork, lowered morale and reduced productivity; all of which undermine the intended goal of insulating profits and maintaining the status quo.

In building a safety net, it’s essential to communicate with your entire staff about the status of the company during these challenging economic times. Tell them what the impact has been on the bottom line, explain the company’s immediate and long term plans, and make clear the reasons for those plans. Perhaps the company can retain the full workforce without change as long as sales don’t drop beneath a particular threshold. Or, maybe you know which departments are likely to experience layoffs first, and which ones last. In explaining the situation, keep a positive outlook, but be honest and realistic. Keeping your staff informed empowers them to help, and allows them to be a part of the solution.

Profits now vs. Profits later

It is anticipated that during tough times profits will go down, but trying to stave off any decrease of profitability is likely to come with other significant costs. The importance then is having a vision and looking toward the future. Know that how you handle it now, will determine what comes next. Where do you want your company to be when the tough times are past? Trying to play catch up with what you’ve neglected or being poised and ready to move as opportunity strikes? Making the tough decisions, and the right ones at this time, is critical.

In evaluating your business expenses, two questions to explore are:

  • What do I need to spend money on?
  • How does it benefit me (my organization)?

While many will turn to “discretionary” spending as the first place to make cuts, it may be necessary to re-evaluate what is truly discretionary. Services to grow or maintain the business – via employee development or marketing - may be of greater significance than originally thought. Cutting costs in these areas will most likely cause business to slow further, and staff to feel more at risk.

Making the Cuts

Unfortunately, it’s easy to make cuts when tangible benefits are difficult to measure. Examine company spending patterns and any available metrics or data that offer evidence as to the value of each expense that you are looking to cut. As you perform the cost-benefit analysis, keep your vision broad. Reducing some expenditures will have minimal impact on productivity and morale, while others may have an unknown result or undesired consequence and should be done as a last resort only. “Marketing and employees are typically an area people make the cut first.” warns Hinsche who sees this as a mistake. He recommends instead that businesses “reduce expenses in occupancy costs including travel and administrative expenses.” A flexible work schedule or telecommuting are options to consider that fall within this plan – staff benefit from reduced travel costs, the business from reduced overhead.

In selecting the best plan for your company, be creative. Brainstorm with colleagues, consider several alternatives, and perhaps, if it’s in the budget, consult with a business advisor for an outside perspective of the situation. Remember even short term decisions have a long-term impact.

Outshine the Competition

While it may be tricky determining the right path for your business, consider the rewards. A forward-thinking attitude will lead others to you from the outside. You stand to outshine your competition who sits idly by, and position yourself to grow as you capture their talent and their customers.

Making thoughtful decisions and planned actions in this turbulent time has profound benefits. In accepting and managing the challenges before you and communicating them with your staff, you demonstrate leadership and vision. You stabilize your staff, retain your top talent, strengthen productivity and keep teamwork high.

Yes, the road ahead is rough – but by keeping business and employee services full, like your car’s gas tank, you will get where you need to go.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Time to Act - Is Now!

In times of uncertainty many of us put off making decisions and spending money while waiting for a sign of what’s next. In business this generally translates into holding back on the seemingly non-essential business elements of training and development. Given our current economic and political state, this behavior has become increasingly prevalent and somewhat understandable...but is it wise? I’m going to suggest that it's not wise. Instead, I believe now is the time to act, and here’s why:

Staff feel safe – As the media announces more lay-offs and increasing unemployment, your staff are likely to be concerned about their paycheck and their job. By maintaining the company plan for training, development, coaching, etc. you silently reassure your staff that their jobs are safe.

Staff feel rewarded – Investing in your staff not only reassures them that they have value to the company, but also provides them with new skills that enhance their own worth.

Clients see you as successful – We may root for the underdog…but we do business with the champ. The messages you send when making smart choices to strengthen and enhance your business and workforce is that you are the champ. Make that statement and others will flock to you.

You outshine your competition – Bold decisions that help grow or enhance your business, will make you instantly look stronger and more capable than those who do not. This competitive advantage extends as you capture clients and talent from the outside, while retaining your own.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Email Contributes To Conflict – What to Do?

  1. Say it clearly – Just this week a colleague and I exchanged emails about an event that we were both to attend. After confirming my plan to attend she checked with me, “Do you have the address of where the meeting is tomorrow?” I replied “Yes”. Unfortunately I later learned that she did not have the address, and in fact missed the meeting. Saying it clearly, or in this case asking it clearly, would have easily resolved this issue.
  2. Don’t make assumptions – It’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions when you don’t have the benefit of visual or auditory information. While email is convenient, it limits our ability to “read” a situation. Keep in mind that writing in all caps doesn’t necessarily indicate yelling, and that a delayed reply might be caused by a technological issue, not rudeness.
  3. Consider the situation – Was that curt reply you received sent via Blackberry? Was the sender of that muddled note out of town or responding at an odd hour? In our world of instant gratification we’ve become accustomed to giving and getting information almost immediately. The problem is that at times this leads to a hasty reply, an incomplete thought, or worse. Consider the situation before you react, and clarify any concerns or issues right away.
  4. Tell them how you feel – Forwards, chain letters, and other email nuisances are often sent by those we love most. I’ve found that those who are new to email or who use it strictly for social purposes are the biggest offenders. Simply let these persons know that while you appreciate the sentiment, you don’t have the time (or inclination) to read such emails, and that you’d like them to limit their correspondence in kind.
  5. Find another way – Email is quick, but it creates barriers to our communication. It removes information that we need (tone of voice, information on the other persons environment), and replaces it with flat dialogue that is both cryptic and permanent. It’s like taking a 3-dimensional object and changing it to a 2-dimensional one, and expecting the same product. Whenever possible, address issues, clarify misunderstandings, and handle pertinent or time-sensitive information by phone or in-person. While it may seem more time-consuming to exchange information in this manner, it saves time and energy by greatly reducing the likelihood of any issues or problems developing.

A new forum of Business Mediation

There are two types of business mediators, those who work to end the lawsuit, and those who work to prevent it.

Most businesses think of mediation as an adjunct to their legal services – and it certainly can be. Mediation can quickly and confidentially resolve pending litigation from claims of harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, etc. In this capacity I myself have negotiated agreements that saved businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits and attorney’s fees. And while this area of mediation is valuable and important, it is just the tip of the mediation iceberg.

Mediation can also prevent the expensive lawsuit. When used as a routine part of a company’s strategy for handling issues between partners, executives, and general employees, problems are addressed in the early stages, when they can still be peaceably resolved. Likewise, this forum of mediation helps businesses retain their best workers, improve teamwork and morale, and increase productivity. And, if an issue is not resolved, evidence of attempting mediation all but eliminates the threat of a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Businesses are often surprised by the speed of the result. Why does it work so well when in-house remedies and efforts do not? In part, the answer is in the question. Mediation makes use of an outside and impartial person. Further, the process is confidential. Together these build a high degree of trust in both the process and the helper, and with trust comes honesty – the key to working out any issue. Likewise, a business that addresses issues in this manner demonstrates to those involved that their concerns have value. When people feel heard, they are more willing to resolve their issues. Putting it together, when people are honest and willing to resolve their issues, a lot gets done quickly.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why a blog?

All too often I hear the same story... It starts with the comment "I wish I knew you earlier". The story continues with an unfortunate tale of woe arising from an employment or business situation in which a dispute, conflict, or even simple misunderstanding escalated into a lost job, a dissolved partnership, and/or a costly legal battle. Inevitably their story is filled with regret or resentment that things were not handled differently. As a mediator specializing in employee relations, partnership issues, and business disputes, I can only agree... "I wish you knew me earlier too."

The truth of the matter is, sometimes timing isn't the problem....fear is. Mediation is something foreign to most people who wrongly confuse it with either litigation or arbitration. Some have even worked with a mediator who did not perform as a true neutral, or who pushed for an agreement when the parties weren't ready or in full agreement. Still others fear that they will be forced into a compromise they don't wish to make. So they sue, they quit, they suffer.

As a mediator this saddens and frustrates me. I know the value of helping people to hear each other, and to understand each other. I know that the fear they may be feeling will be quelled within minutes of the process beginning. And I know that the process makes it easier to communicate and resolve differences....making it possible to truly arrive at a win-win ending.

My hope is that this blog helps to chip away at the resistance, and that more people talk about mediation as an exceptional service and vehicle for conflict resolution.