…And Then the Conversation Changed

You had to hand it to the CEO. Even though it was in the midst of the pandemic, he didn’t have to give a weekly update to the company. It was something he wanted to do and believed he owed to the staff. It had been difficult for the staff. They had faced temporary pay cuts, seeing colleagues furloughed, and a workload that skyrocketed not only because of the furloughs but the additional work the company heaped upon them in order to stay afloat.

You also had to congratulate him for not just addressing the company, but also taking questions via a chat function each week. Further, you had to admire the man for not only taking the questions, but for surviving the questions. Some of the questions asked of the CEO were eye rolling, filled with petty requests that didn’t recognize the situation that the company was in, but rather almost sounded like children pushing a parent for more and more candy. The CEO handled these well, even when his direct reports didn’t handle them as well as they should.

And example of this was one question asked of him during these calls. The question, about whether the company might consider granting an additional vacation day or two for the employees who were working admittedly long hours to keep the company going. In most of these cases, the CEO would politely say it was not a topic for consideration and move on to the next question. In this case, the CEO passed it to his top HR person. Her answer changed the conversation.

Instead of just saying it was not being considered, the HR person said that she would like to see the employees take the days they already had. She then passed the conversation back to the CEO. Adding insult to injury, this response we mimicked by others in the C level when asked the question. No matter who said it, the response did not go over well.

What was the problem? It was in what was said, not the underlying issue. In saying that employees should take the days they already have, it implied that the C level had no idea of the amount of extra work, the amount of extra hours, and the amount of sacrifice the employees of the company were expending in order to keep the company afloat. Many could not take a day off for fear of what their inbox would look like the next day. Others mentioned their managers strongly discouraged the taking of a vacation day for fear of what their team or department would look like to upper management.

Beyond that, the response showed a simple lack of appreciation. Many of the other ‘suggestions’ from the CEO’s call were monetary based. Can we get our cut salary back? Can we get a higher bonus for the work we are doing? Can you pay for the four staples I used while working at home during the crisis. This wasn’t. While there was a monetary component to it, namely lost revenue due to lost work, it was an important non-monetary way to express the appreciation of the management of the company for the sacrifice being forced upon their people. By refusing to even consider it, and saying so in such an offhand way, the C level was saying that they were happy to express their appreciation verbally, but putting any action behind it was not something they wished to consider. That changed the conversation from saying, “We’re all in this together.” to “It’s one thing to have you sacrifice and another thing to have the company do the same.”

Over the next few weeks there were clarifications and explanations, but the damage had been done. Lower level leaders of the company understood and would give an extra day to their people or tell the staff not to charge a day of vacation to the official time keeping application. Even the C level seemed to get the message and began making some other concessions, like vacation carry overs, which were appreciated by the staff. Still, the memory of that response stuck in the mind of many employees, even those who would roll their eyes at some of the more whining complaints of their co-workers.

Especially in times of crisis, leadership needs to tread a fine line of asking for shared sacrifice and showing appreciation to those who answer the call. Doing this successfully will add to the camaraderie of the company and encourage the employees to give what they can, when they can, to get through the crisis. When you draw that line in the dirt between words and action, your employees will do the same. When you show you are ignorant of their actions, you risk revolt.

You as a leader need to erase the lines, foster understanding, and breed compassion. Otherwise, you give your employees no reason to do anything but what you are modeling.