Leading employees through tough times

Ruth Kinzey
Ruth Kinzey

PJ’s Ret Boney talked with communications consultant Ruth Kinzey about keeping employee morale and productivity high during difficult times. Kinzey is president of The Kinzey Company, a Salisbury-based consultancy that works with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Question: The recession has been hard on nonprofits across the country. They are responding to heightened needs in the community while working harder to raise money. In response, many are cutting costs, freezing salaries or even laying off staff. How does this difficult working environment affect nonprofit employees’ morale, job satisfaction and productivity?

Answer: As a whole, employees are tired. Whether in the nonprofit sector, the service sector or the manufacturing sector, everyone is seeing their organizations become leaner in some way, whether through layoffs, reduced benefits or fewer hours.

Due to economic conditions, this has permeated the workforce life such that everyone is asked to do more with less. So employees, as a whole, feel they’re giving a lot to their employers. On the other hand, many people are grateful to have a paycheck.

But what’s important, and what gives the nonprofit executive director some real opportunity, is knowing there are ways to make employees feel valued.

If employees feel valued and feel appreciated, they are more willing to put in more hours or take on additional responsibilities.

And by boosting job satisfaction and morale during the difficult times, it’s easier to get employees to stay in their jobs after the external environment has improved.

Q: How can nonprofit leaders use internal communications to boost morale and job satisfaction?

A: A common complaint from employees is they feel like they’re being kept in the dark. The internal communications piece plays a critical role because it allows management to share the vision and the progress of the organization.

First, if you provide information about where your nonprofit is headed – whether that is toward tough times, a higher fundraising goal, or adding a service – make sure your employees understand the vision.

Employees are your best ambassadors and if they can’t communicate the vision to others, then you can’t fully leverage your communications.

By the same token, be sure to keep employees informed about the organization’s progress toward goals. That’s important in keeping them energized.

It’s also vital to provide opportunities for employees to share information with one another. When there are a lot of demands on employees, it’s easy to get focused on your own to do list.

By sharing information, employees find out what is happening throughout the organization and can help each other identify creative solutions or opportunities for efficiencies.

To do this well, a nonprofit may have to have more meetings – but they must be run efficiently. Information sharing also can occur through written communications.

A third critical factor is recognition. It’s important to provide a form of measurement for employees and to celebrate their successes.

Make sure employees know how they are being measured and provide small rewards for a job well done – even if it’s just a hand-written note or an hour off of work. Simple gestures can go a long way.

Q: What is the best way for nonprofit leaders to communicate about difficult topics (like layoffs, salary freezes, or budget or program cuts) with their staffs, boards and supporters?

A: The most important thing a nonprofit manager can do is to keep communication channels open and prepare employees for any bad news.

If you’re doing your job as an executive director, you will see what’s on the horizon. Nonprofits don’t get to a crisis level in two hours.

Not only does this keep employees from being surprised by bad news, bringing people along with you as you see situations develop can be a help to the organization

Sharing information with each of your audiences – employees, board members, volunteers – provides them the opportunity to generate creative solutions.

For example, regular donors who have had to curtail donations because of personal financial difficulties may be able to contribute in other ways if they know what organizational needs exist.

Board members might be able to donate professional services or surplus office equipment, and employees might know of people who are currently out of work who might want to volunteer while looking for employment.

That said, when you share difficult information with employees, you have to frame your communication positively but honestly and then stick with the key message.

For example, if you’ve missed an important fundraising goal, you could say “I know we didn’t meet our goal and we worked hard for it, so we are asking you to be resources. No doubt there are other ways we can continue serving those people who need us.”

Then, tackle the challenging times as a team and be receptive to ideas and suggestions.

This can be difficult, but if you are leading a nonprofit, you must keep an optimistic outlook and encourage your employees to see things from a creative standpoint.

By empowering your stakeholders and providing well-deserved recognition of employees’ hard work, you can add to productivity and improve morale. And if you can do this well, you’ll be building your own career and creating a loyal following because you proved you can stay positive and approach problems with creativity.

Remember: All organizations now are being forced to reevaluate their economic models and approach things differently, so this skill is a valuable asset.

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