How to Keep Employees Up When the Economy’s Down

By Brooke Bates
Smart Business Detroit | February 2010

Aaron Chernow is trying to make his company like a refuge from economic woes. “There’s so much negative data and spin out there and it’s so available to everyone now,” says the CEO of Brightwing. “It seems like that whole sky-is-falling mentality is so pungent out there.”

And Chernow knows how easy it would be to give in to a cut-and-brace philosophy. But he wants to turn that pressure into something positive. He’s doing it by focusing on the staffing firm’s core values, keeping his 250 employees in the know and watching his own stress levels.

“You really need to focus on creating an environment that is light, that provides sort of a sanctuary for people to come in,” says Chernow, who led the company to 2008 revenue of $32 million.

Smart Business spoke to Chernow about keeping your employees’ spirits high when the economy is weighing down.

Find a focus. When you enter into tough times or you increase the expectations on your work force, you need to increase the presence of what makes your organization special. So for us, it’s a focus around our core values.

[Our employees’] expectations for their success are always through the roof. In tough times, it’s hard to manage that: ‘The effort that I put in last year is not getting me the results this year.’ Our way around that is focusing elsewhere to help them find their self-value. So we celebrate the small wins at work; we celebrate the big wins at work. We also celebrate their commitment outside of work. That seems to create a really positive, energetic, authentic culture.

We created a communication group about nine months ago. This was a group of eight people that had tenure but also displayed the core values. We talked about ways to protect our culture. They thought that the focus on the individual employees was really important.

There was a suggestion to put a video together of all the things that people do — not only within the organization but externally — that drives their passion for excellence. We put a two-minute video together that had five clips, sort of a day in the life of our employees and some of the special things that our employees do outside of work that relates to our core values.

We shared the video with all of our internal employees and then they decided that we should send it to our clients. So we’ve celebrated what makes people special, both during the workday but also when they come home from work, whether it’s coaching their son’s soccer team to taking care of their elderly parents [or] to donating their time for Meals on Wheels to managing having six children.

Keep in touch. Just the simple act of communicating with people and giving them honest and frequent communication on where we are as a company [makes them] feel like they have a better sense of control over something that they may not have control over. It was important for us to hold a lot of companywide meetings and provide them the facts as we knew it. That gave insight into how we were going to handle it.

Sometimes the facts were not what they wanted to hear, but at least they knew that we were authentic, not giving them just the good facts and holding back the bad facts. The only thing that you can do when you don’t know what’s going to happen is speak honestly and openly and not promise anything that you can’t deliver.

We relayed to them where we stood revenue wise, where we stood on our relationships with our core clients, the information that we were receiving out of them. Every organization has a different balance depending on what their employees are used to hearing. If our employees were never used to hearing information or financial results or where we stood with respect to our clients, if this was the first time, it would be overwhelming.

When you communicate with people as much as we do on a one-on-one basis, you get the feeling when people are stressed out and they’re in need of some sort of [activity.] We have our critical numbers that we run our business on. Everyone is attuned to those critical numbers; they’re published on a weekly basis. So when those successes are slow to happen, we notice that people get tight. The banter also quiets down. When you don’t hear the banter, either they’re working really, really hard or maybe they’re pressing too tight or they’re too stressed out.

Keep your stress in check. Our executive team consistently utilizes one another to evaluate our strengths and our weaknesses. We put a personal priority plan together on a quarterly basis for each other, in which we focus on one of the areas that we would like to strengthen. It acts as a support group in making sure that we’re focused on those things that we want to get better on.

As a leader, I did not want to let my weaknesses become the company’s weaknesses. And so I promised myself that I would listen 10 times more than I did the previous year. I thought that if I truly listened, I would really understand where people stood and where the market stood. That is an opportunity for you to learn but also, probably more importantly, for the people to feel comfortable in their own decisions and their own opinions.

And I also quit golf. For most type-A people, golf is the perfect hobby to flex your desire to conquer something. I have never conquered the game of golf. Every time I got on the golf course, it was not relaxing at all. In fact, it created more anxiety that I couldn’t relax. So I hung up my clubs, and I spent my free time with activities that I could actually start and finish and that provided me a sense of accomplishment.

Weaknesses are accentuated when you put pressure on a person. Don’t let your weaknesses lead the organization, especially in bad times.