Career Management
The Echoes Heard at Work
By Nan S. Russell
Sep 19, 2009 - 8:08:02 AM

Coward. That word, along with others less printable, popped to mind when I heard a story about a friend's son. It turns out, he learned he was no longer employed via a text-message to his cell phone on a Sunday night. The brief message from his ex-boss informed him that his last work day had been Friday.

It's no surprise to hear about another job lost as unemployment soars, failed businesses close, consumers shut their pocketbooks, and entire industries restructure. But I'm surprised any boss who wants to grow their business, have an engaged team, or achieve lasting results would choose such a communication method.

The echo from that text-message to remaining employees is as vivid as if the boss had texted each a message reading, "You don't matter around here." In an era where companies need discretionary efforts and creative ideas from staff to survive, let alone thrive, much is broadcast to those who remain by how a boss treats or mistreats those who don't.

Contrast this approach with one I read about that same week. An executive vice president of a large firm headquartered in New York made the trip to Chicago to personally tell a small staff their satellite office was being closed. Incurred expense, time away, and a formidable message did not deter him.

For affected employees, the pain of losing their jobs is there in both cases. But the pain of indifference isn't. As consumers, employees, friends and families of ex-employees, in this open-info-era, we can seek out and do business with healthy workplaces, just like we can choose to do business with green companies. It's time we did.

But there's another point to this story about my friend's son; that's the coward part. People terminate employment, business agreements, and personal relationships with what feels to them like an easy, simple way to communicate something that is difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable. That protective barrier of a computer, a voicemail system, or a text-message makes the communication face-less, reaction-less, emotion-less.

But here's the thing: some communications shouldn't be easy or faceless. When we execute tough decisions with no personal connection or pain, we lose a bit of our humanity in the process.

I know first-hand how difficult it is to terminate someone's livelihood, to sit across the desk, look them in the eye and explain to them why. But it should be difficult. Decisions we make at work affect people lives, their families, their well-being, their self-esteem, and a host of other things. These are not decisions to make or render lightly.

People who are winning at working understanding that. They want to look themselves in the eye and feel good about how they did what they did. The "what" may have been difficult or beyond their control or even not their decision at all, but "the how" is a choice they can make.

The how is a reflection of who they are. And people who are winning at working bring the best of who they are to these difficult workplace conversations. That best includes characteristics like kindness, consideration, integrity, and compassion.

The decisions we make at work can be tough, especially in these challenging times. But how we communicate in difficult times echoes loudly into the future of our teams, our departments, and our companies. That echo comes back, only louder.

(c) 2009 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved. Award winning author of Hitting Your Stride (Capital Books; 2008). Radio host of "Work Matters with Nan Russell" weekly on Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Sign up to receive Nan's "Winning at Working" tips and insights at

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