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Rebuilding Morale

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After layoffs, leadership needs to be visible, confident, and clear in dealing with staff.

As healthcare organizations continue to cope with the current financial crisis, for many that has meant cutting staff. Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania laid off 106 employees; Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, cut 240 doctors, nurses, and other workers; and Ohio's Akron General Hospital laid off 145 employees—and that is just a small sampling of the hospital layoffs announced this past spring.

Some organizations, such as Boone Hospital Center in Missouri, which recently cut 35 employees, are on their second round of layoffs. Since the recession began in December 2007, 5.7 million jobs have been lost, according to a May 2009 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Trying to rebuild morale and keep managers focused on organizational priorities after a layoff presents a challenge. And the lingering uncertainty about the economy has only made that task more difficult for leaders today. Here are some strategies senior executives can use to refocus staff members on the goals of the organization.

Be seen. Be heard. Be available. Staff members may be feeling guilty that they still have their job, or overwhelmed by an increase in their workload, or feeling vulnerable about their own job security. Senior leaders should make sure they are visible to the entire staff, providing support to managers, and that the organization is really listening to what they have to say. "Go to middle managers and say, 'What do you need me to do for your people? Do you need me to come and talk to them, or do you want to handle that yourself,'" advises John Baldoni, a leadership consultant and frequent contributor to Harvard Business Publishing.

Provide a grieving period. Senior executives should be honest and as forthcoming as possible. Explain why this is happening, what the situation is, what the organization is prepared to do, says Russ Johnson, CEO of San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center in Alamosa, CO. "Don't be afraid of feelings—theirs or yours," he says. "These are difficult conversations and they have feelings attached. To deny them, cover them up completely, or avoid them leaves the other party feeling emptier."

Recognize that the organization will be losing some great contributors and it takes time for employees to process the information, says Baldoni, adding that it doesn't mean leaders should tolerate employees who try to use the layoffs as an excuse to slack off. "Accountability is probably more important than ever, but you do it with a human face," he says.

Radiate optimism and confidence. "Leaders can't afford to show fear personally, but they need to recognize that there is fear," Baldoni says. They should convey that they believe in the organization, the people, and that the organization will survive this trying time. When leaders are forced to give bad news, they can't waffle or be weak, adds Johnson. "Be clear about the position you are taking and the reasons behind it."

Give people ownership. One strategy to help employees focus on organizational priorities is to give them ownership, let them redesign some of their own job tasks to make them more efficient, says Baldoni. Layoffs provide the opportunity for people to flex their wings and show what they can do. Empowerment can also remove some of the angst of downsizing, explains Baldoni, because "if we are actively engaged, we have less time to stew in our own juices."

Carrie Vaughan

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