How does it feel?

download (1)There’s nothing like watching multiple, ongoing crises unfold to make PR bloggers happy. For us it’s like winning the Triple Crown.

First, there was Donald Sterling. Then there was GM. Now, we have the V. A. hospitals’ delays. And, each crisis has multiple, never-ending news cycles. That’s manna for reporters and Repman types alike.

In each of the three crisis cases, we’ve seen horrific responses and worst practice examples of how not to manage an unfolding event.

But, rather than repeat what’s already been said by countless others, I’d thought I’d address the other side of these types of mega-crises: the impact on the morale of the rank-and-file employees of all three organizations.

A serious crisis can be like a cancer that, if left unchecked, can kill an organization from the inside out. Sure, customers will bail. Stock prices will plummet and competitors will scoop up market share, but employee morale and productivity are fundamental to any embattled company’s survival.

I’ve counseled many clients over the years, and ensured that human resources specialists work closely with grief counselors, organizational behavior experts and, when appropriate, even motivational speakers to ensure innocent employees’ needs are addressed.

But many company management teams simply forget their employees when a CNN crew is outside corporate headquarters, a Senate investigation is underway or ESPN is providing 24×7 coverage.

To wit, I remember attending a cocktail reception in the immediate aftermath of the massive, 2008 market meltdown. I happened to bump into a friend who had worked at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. I asked him how he was holding up. ‘I’m ok,’ he said, ‘but my family is taking a terrible beating. My wife’s friends are ignoring her and my kids are being taunted at school. As for me, everyone always asks the same question: How does it feel to have played a part in destroying our economy?’

I’m sure a version of that anecdote is happening right now to the tens of thousands of GM employees who weren’t part of the massive, decade-long quality cover-up.

Imagine what it must be like to work at GM right now. I’ll bet you can hear a pin drop in the corporate offices. And, as far as the factory floors are concerned, you better believe stress levels are overheating faster than a broken down ’68 Buick on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

If GM is to ever turn things around, it’s critical they pay as much attention to the psychological and emotional needs of the employee base as they do to regulators, politicians and the media. Ditto for the VA Hospital. As for the L.A. Clippers, I guess their employees can get away with saying, ‘Hey, I worked for an ass. What can I say?’

So, as the GM and V.A. stories move forward, pay attention to the most overlooked part of any crisis story: employee morale. It’ll be interesting to see how each organization does, or doesn’t, attend to the needs of their most important front-line ambassadors.

If nothing else, management should provide employees with credible answers to the question, ‘So, how does it feel to work for (fill-in the blank).’

3 thoughts on “How does it feel?

  1. Automotive News is the US automakers’ house organ. It’s the equivalent of PR Week in its narrowness, and quotes several GM top execs that morale is “surprisingly high given what we’ve been up against.” Uh-huh. And I can promise you that if you buy this ChevroBuicadillac it will never have a safety defect or be recalled.

    It’s gotta be discouraging to work at GM when the top guns are likely to literally get away with getting people killed on their watch. They all seem to be either liars or stooges. Former CEO Dan Akerson appears to have gotten PR counsel that media won’t press him about the ignition switch debacle. So far they’ve been right. so they didn’t even bother to come up with anything half-convincing when denying knowledge.

    But I do believe that Mary Barra didn’t know — someone had to serve as the dupe with plausible deniability. And she ran GM’s HR.

  2. I’m not sure how morale can be “surprisingly good” at GM, Peter. Anyone with other options available would most certainly leave a company that consciously covered-up fatal product defects for a decade. But, where would a GM employee even go? I think they have such limited career options that most GM employees know they’re lucky to even have a job. And, so they do what Bill Clinton was so adept at doing: they competmentalize.

    • The executive who said it, Mark Reuss, is a GM lifer whose father nearly ran GM into the ground a generation ago. So take that statement for where its credibility, er….lies.

      There are lots of good GM people who aren’t in charge. Transportation needs aren’t going anywhere, they’re just evolving into alternatives — car share, suppliers, CNG and other fuel infrastructure, etc.

      I’m not saying it’s all sunshine and lollipops, but there are options — especially if they’re willing to leave Detroit. In the traditional realm, Toyota will need good people for its move to Texas, M-B, BMW and Nissan always need people down South, Fiat Chrysler is currently OK, the Koreans and Ford appear to be in great shape and could take advantage of GM’s woes, and Tesla may succeed on a bigger scale when its lower-priced car debuts. And even with some level of dysfunction, the management of any of those companies is a huge improvement over GM.