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Dealing with Employee Fear

The emotion and fear on the other end of the phone was palpable. Coronavirus concerns had prevented a good night sleep and now the call in the morning to say they had decided to remain home as the fear of being exposed, or exposing others, was too great. This wasn’t a one day decision, but rather a “for the foreseeable future” decision that could not be swayed by lack of paid leave or sick time. Logic wasn’t the answer.

Pandemics don’t just profligate microbes - they deal mostly in fear. As leaders there is no question we must face employee fear, and we must not forget that there is a human being behind it. In the instant when I realized at a high volume season I would be one person short, and maybe more if this type of thinking was shared, it became clear something had to be done to address the human need.

In the face of fear safety concerns must take forefront. Fear paralyzes and nothing further can be accomplished if this imperative is not met. Here is a simple process using what I call the “Five C’s Ladder” to address both organizational need and employee perception of safety:

  1. Common denominator: Identify the lowest common denominator of what the organization requires to be successful - in a pandemic situation this could be identifying the minimum number of hours employees must be physically present to accomplish their work - and then work toward that goal

  2. Clear a path: Identify the barriers preventing attainment of the common denominator, such as institution policies against remote work options, and investigate whether those barriers must remain - if clear safety reasons exist why they must remain, then the ladder stops here as the lowest common denominator has already been met and the employee must decide if they accept that denominator or not

  3. Collaborate: If the reasons for the barriers do not outweigh the potential loss due to safety concerns, collaborate with administration (including Human Resources) to clearly and briefly identify why the existing barriers will cause the organization more harm than good

  4. Course of action: In consultation with appropriate administration, provide guidelines for any new initiatives, such as remote working, and have the employees sign that they understand and agree to uphold the new course of action

  5. Check points: Ensure that the signed course of action document identifies agreed upon check-in points in order to be able to hold everyone accountable (including you) - this is a new experience for everyone and frequent and consistent checks will ensure the best outcome

The goal of the “Five C’s Ladder” is to look at employee fear in light of organizational needs and work hard to align the outcome. It can happen that some employees will not have their safety needs met, but as long as their fear is considered and honestly reviewed the respect shown the human being on the other end of the phone or desk will go far.

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