Silence feeds rumour mill

Compounding the stress caused by daily layoff stories is gossip. Don’t ignore that water-cooler chat, said Dr. James Osterhaus, a psychologist and senior partner at The Armstrong Group in Fairfax, Va. Osterhaus is also the author of The Thing in the Bushes, a book about psychological health in the workplace.

“There’s psychology surrounding everything that happens to us,” Osterhaus said. But the psychology surrounding actual or projected work force reductions can be particularly troubling for both managers and staff. Osterhaus shares the story of a patient, a male in his mid-50s, working in a particularly volatile industry, who is dealing with layoff hearsay at his company. The patient said that the anxiety surrounding possible corporate pink slips is distracting and negatively affects his performance.

Osterhaus is not surprised. The psychologist said managers in companies at which layoffs are pending or even just rumoured may see signs of anxiety and depression in their staff. “Employees may suffer from a lack of sleep, may get sick more or may be in more workplace accidents,” Osterhaus said.

Managers are not trained counsellors, but part of their job is to keep staff motivated and on track. And that means recognizing symptoms and trying to get to the problems’ roots, which may be just as much from impending layoffs as from a lack of communication in the department.

“Our brains are always seeking meaning. So when we only have bits of information, we fill in the gaps. We’re trying to figure out what has happened and what will happen,” Osterhaus said.

In filling those gaps, staffers easily jump to the wrong conclusions – ones worse than the company’s actual situation. Guessing “the truth” causes scuttlebutt to run rampant. As a result, Osterhaus said, “employees are more likely to lose faith in the company and in their managers. They might think that ‘management is not looking out for my best interests.’ ” This, he said, leads to increased cynicism in employees, which affects company morale and can lead to a talent drain, when employees leave who were not targeted for layoffs.

Whether dealing with the buzz of possible layoffs or pink slip aftermath, managers need to “pace” the rumour mill. According to Osterhaus, managers should speak openly with staff about the stress and cynicism that layoff scuttlebutt can cause. A manager might pace staff with statements such as, “I know you are really anxious now about where this organization is going,” or “I understand that you are mourning colleagues who were laid off.”

Pacing can help to rebuild trust between managers and staff, but it is not enough. Don’t try to protect employees by shielding them from bad news, Osterhaus said. This will only encourage further speculation, cynicism among employees and unexpected attrition.