Difficult Times Bring Out Good, Bad and Ugly Behavior

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Feb 9, 2009
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“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” goes the old adage. Some employees, when faced with adversity, do indeed “get going” and find ways to work harder and smarter when the business climate is challenging. But others might respond by protecting their interests, blaming others for their problems or engaging in even more unsavory behavior.

SHL, a talent assessment company, released the results of a study on employee motivation in January 2009. Most respondents (63 percent) said that the economic situation has not had any effect on their motivation, while another 15 percent admitted that it has made them less motivated. But another 15 percent said they are actually more motivated as a result of the economic downturn—reasons for this include fear of being laid off (53 percent) and increased workload (41 percent).

“A motivated workforce is crucial to ensure employees are happy, engaged [and] productive, and good advocates for the company,” said James Bywater, Global Consulting Manager, SHL, in a statement. “It doesn’t always take a lot, but it is important to ensure that you are motivating the right people in the right way, as everybody is different. Some people are motivated by money, competition and high pressure, while others prefer encouragement, team working and being appreciated by colleagues. Getting it wrong can lead to unenthusiastic and unproductive employees, which can have a devastating effect on the bottom line.”

The Good

Higher productivity might be one of the most positive behaviors employers see as a result of the economic downturn. “Businesses appear to have squeezed more out of the workers they kept on staff,” a Jan. 13, 2009, Wall Street Journal article states.

Others may look to reductions in absenteeism as a sign that employees are working hard to keep their jobs.

But a study published in the December 2008 issue of the Academy of Management Journal, involving thousands of employees of a state department of transportation, found that it was dissatisfied, disaffected workers who were most likely to report to work consistently.

The organization has 12,500 employees and 115 work groups. Data for the study, gathered annually from 1998 to 2003, consisted of employee attitude surveys developed by the researchers, departmental records of unit-level absenteeism and county unemployment information.

The researchers found that the local unemployment rate, job satisfaction and organizational commitment had a significant inverse effect on absenteeism (the higher one was, the lower the other was), with commitment having the greatest effect and with unemployment the least.

According to the study, absenteeism was low regardless of levels of job satisfaction or unemployment if commitment was high.

The Bad

In the absence of organizational commitment, employees might be more prone to blame someone else for problems they have caused, according to Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire.

“We’re pretty obsessed with assigning blame in our culture. In the workplace, there usually are more challenges and failures during tough economic times, and because of self-serving attitudes, it’s common to want to make sure the blame is on someone else,” Harvey said in a statement.

“It’s a common human tendency for people to convince themselves that they are the cause of the good things but try to assign blame to others when things go wrong,” Harvey added. “It’s an ego defense-mechanism that helps people feel good about themselves.”

Others might experience Post-Downsizing Stress-Syndrome, a psychological response to a combination of widespread layoffs and high levels of job stress, according to Barry Shore, professor of decision sciences at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore School of Business and Economics.

Symptoms of Post-Downsizing Stress-Syndrome

  • Trouble concentrating on the job.
  • Irritability with fellow workers.
  • Anger toward management.
  • Higher absenteeism.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Family problems.
  • Feelings of mistrust.
  • Health problems.
  • Negative attitude toward work.
  • A sense of hopelessness.

“When several of these symptoms are observed, management needs to take action before the damage spreads through the workforce,” Shore said in a statement. “Certainly, those who still hold their jobs feel grateful for being spared, but many also feel threatened, abandoned, burdened with more work, and subject to overall greater job stress.”

The result is that employees become obsessed with their own plight, he said. As a result, they might worry about job security rather than job performance. “Unless treated, the organization’s competitive position may be eroded as morale and then performance suffers,” he added.

But Shore says the greatest impact might not be felt until later: “Some of the company’s best performers may leave once the job market recovers,” he said. “This can be particularly unfortunate since those who have survived the reductions in force are presumably the better performers.”

The Ugly

Low morale can impact the bottom line in other, more tangible ways, too.

More than a quarter (27 percent) of companies with 10,000 or more employees said crime in the workplace had risen, according to a Workplace Theft Pulse survey released by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) Dec. 11, 2008.

Almost a quarter of the 392 respondents (24 percent), and 31 percent of those at companies with 10,000 or more workers, said they had noticed an increase in the theft of company-owned items such as office supplies, products they produce, electronic equipment and food items since the economic downturn began, i4cp reports.

Employee-related monetary theft (such as padding of expense reports, the disappearance of cash and other financially related crimes) was said to have increased by 18 percent of overall respondents and by 22 percent of large companies.

“As economic pressures mount on employees, it’s not surprising that illegal and unethical activities, such as workplace theft, increase,” said Jay Jamrog, i4cp’s senior vice president of research. “What’s important for employers to recognize is that this increase is likely.”

Launch a Counter-Attack

Shore offers several suggestions for employers to help counteract the impact of a business downturn:

  • Acknowledge the insecurities and fears of the workforce.
  • Share the complexities of management decisions and ask for suggestions.
  • Involve employees in developing new ways to improve old products and processes.
  • Encourage collaboration.
  • Recognize contributions and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Communicate often, via meetings, blogs and newsletters.

“With the downturn, employees at all levels are wondering what the future will bring,” said Aniko Czinege, president and founder of Workwise Communication, in a Jan. 5, 2009, statement. “It’s hard to imagine, but companies often focus more on speaking with the people they’re letting go and forget about the people they need and want to retain.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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