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What to Say Now

David Jarrard, for HealthLeaders Media, October 3, 2008

Today's economy is giving the thesaurus a workout.

It's hard for reporters and politicians to find more dramatic words to describe the extraordinary events on Wall Street and its threat to Main Street. Here's a sampling from the last 24 hours: Disastrous. Crisis. Damaging. Shattering. Dangerous. Helter-skelter. Chaos. Dire. Scary. Uncertain. Recession. Foreclosure. Depression. Panic. Failure.

You hear these words as a health leader. You may ask yourself: Do we move forward with that medical office building expansion? Should we buy that physician group now? Can our investments still cover our indigent care losses?

But now imagine that you hear these words as a medical/surgical nurse, or a lab tech, or a radiology manager. Now you may ask: Am I ok? Will I have a job tomorrow? Can I keep my house? Does the CEO here have a clue? Am I safe?

The most recent comments by health finance experts are that our industry will be relatively unharmed by this financial mess. (So far, at least.) But these experts are talking about the math of "access to capital" and "triple A ratings." They are not talking about the culture of your organization or the psyche of your employees.

Your nurses and techs and housekeeping staff—the backbone of your organization—are being battered by a Katrina-sized storm of news reports swollen with the most catastrophic language reporters can Google. They are vulnerable. They need an umbrella.

That's your job.

This is your rare opportunity to strengthen relationships inside your organization. Conversely, it's a time you ignore at your peril.

Here's what we know:

  • People protect themselves (and their families) first, the organization second. Before your employees will focus on the success of your organization, they must know that their jobs are secure. If you don't offer them a sense of security or a sense of belonging to a team and to a cause, they may find it someplace else—at your competition across the street, for example. Or they may finally decide to give a call to that union organizer who has been selling it, too.
  • The best leave first. In uncertain times, your best staffers—the ones who make the place tick—are the ones who can find the best jobs somewhere else. Health leaders face this risk today, well before any financial impact from Wall Street arrives.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum. In work environments, when leadership provides no information or corporate-speak rah-rah on a hot topic, that vacuum is filled by inaccuracies or wild misinformation. None of these are good and are always worse than what leadership could share with them—even if your news is "I don't know yet."Want people to panic? Don't talk to them.
  • Your competition is happy to talk to your staff, and is probably doing it already.
  • The act of communicating is a message. Handled correctly, the act of leaders reaching out to employees is a sign of confidence and trustworthiness, even if your message today is not precisely what everyone would like to hear. Building a reservoir of trust with your staff can get you and your team through the toughest times. Don't write them a letter for your newsletter. (Who reads that, anyway?) Walk the halls. Show them you are in the game with them. Bring pizza to the night shift tonight. Serve it yourself.

Today, the mistake is to wait it out—to wait for the answers to become clear and for all the Wall Street fallout to be known—before you engage with your people. They do not expect you to have all the answers or to promise them that everything is going to be alright.

But what do you say when you don't have all the answers? There are sure to be many details, but the overall theme should be simple and strong. Tell them that:

  • You have confidence in the organization
  • You have confidence in them
  • You have confidence in what you can accomplish together, whatever storm may come

It may take weeks and months before we can begin to know the impact of today's economic crisis on the healthcare industry. You may not feel it—if you ever do—until your next fiscal year.

But the impact on your people is happening right now. It's as current as CNN. Break out your own thesaurus, if need be, and begin your own conversation with your team today.


David Jarrard is president of Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, Inc., a national healthcare public affairs firm focused on helping leaders of healthcare organizations successfully navigate communications challenges.

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