The company was under performing. There were recent layoffs, and rumors of more.
The office of the CEO scheduled a town hall meeting for June; hundreds of employees would be in attendance with likely hundreds more watching the video feed streamed into conference rooms across the corporate campus and field offices.
In his town hall comments, the CEO addressed the recent layoffs and the rumors of likely future reductions. He spoke of soft sales and margin pressure that necessitated the cost reduction actions.
He also announced the implementation of some employee-friendly actions; I recall summer hours being one of the more prominent.
He, it seemed to me, was being transparent, genuine, even courageous. He had a tough message to deliver, and he was straight up in delivering it. It was, it seemed to me, a good-faith effort to connect, and explain. He was reaching me; I was with him.
Until, just like that, I wasn’t.
I witnessed it … there was no mistaking it … he was visibly underwhelmed and disappointed when the employees in the room were unresponsive. He quite clearly found the lack of response … well … baffling.
To his credit, his umbrage wasn’t overt — he didn’t chide, or admonish — but he clearly was taken aback by the utter lack of positive response.
* * * * *
Let’s imagine the executive discussions that explored the effect of the layoffs and led to the summer hours decision and the town hall event.
I imagine meetings where an executive or two spoke of their concern for the morale of their teams. I imagine that the brainstorming on actions to take to improve morale were framed by a question like what can we do to improve morale that is expense-neutral?
I imagine they soon coalesced on the summer hours idea as a relatively easy and painless way to give something back, to show consideration. It was a low-cost way to create a positive feeling.
I further imagine that the CEO was not entirely on board, unconvinced that the summer hours plan wouldn’t be a productivity loss that would further exacerbate company performance … yet he agreed that something needed to be done to boost morale, and he couldn’t disregard this reasonable effort by his executive team to address the problem while respecting the challenge to the bottom line.
And I imagine that as he decided to take that risk, he also saw it as self-sacrificing to address his employees directly, as that surely would be uncomfortable. That, I imagine he reasoned, was his price to pay for the position he held; surely his sacrifice and good faith effort on behalf of his employees would be recognized and affirmed.
And when in the town hall it wasn’t, he took umbrage.
* * * * *
His reaction in that town hall was a clear and present indication for me that he was simply not up to the cultural challenge he was facing.
Implementing temporary employee perks in an attempt to enhance morale is about as effective as rolling out a new advertisement for a inferior product. If there is positive effect, it doesn’t last. Customers are smart; they quickly catch on.
As do employees.
Summer hours and the like will not even prove minimally effective when people are worried about being on the next layoff list. Isn’t it baffling that very smart organizational leaders continue to think that that’s a people strategy worth pursuing?
And, before I close, I can’t help but note that one of the strategic statements of that CEO’s organization was build lifetime relationships with customers.
What do you think the chances of that are when they reinforce with regularity a very tenuous relationship with employees and rely on unserious superficial management action to mitigate the disengagement?