Chris was pressed for time. He also thought that he was too busy to talk with any of the workers individually because this would have taken too much of his time. Consequently, he decided to send them a memo to inform them that costs had to be cut by 20%, and that there would be a meeting to discuss alternative ways of cutting those costs. Given the circumstances, the memo was not a good idea.
In using the short memo to announce the 20% reduction in costs, Chris set the stage for uncontrolled discussions concerning the possibilities of what would be cut. With no attempt on his part to direct the discussions among the workers, he let them do what they naturally would do – arrive at the worst case scenario. The workers, like most normal people, began speculating about the possibility of them losing their jobs. They let the memo and its mention of “tough choices” guide them into the upsetting conclusion that some of them would lose their jobs, perhaps even an entire shift.
Chris also used the memo to announce the meeting on Friday afternoon just before the workday and the workweek ended. The implication from the memo is that the meeting is set purposely late in the afternoon on Friday so that workers can be dismissed from the jobs and not given time to protest or discuss why they were being let go. Chris and the rest of management would avoid the pressure of having to answer their questions, and they would not have an opportunity to have them answered next week because they will have been let go. It is understandable why the workers were agitated and began to yell and protest their firings even though they did not really know what was going to happen.
If I had been in Chris’s shoes, I would not have used a memo to announce the 20% cut and the meeting. Even if Chris were pressed for time, he should have gathered together groups of employees in various areas in the production department and tell them personally about the cuts in cost. Then he would have been able to answer any immediate questions, which would surely have included the possibility of firing people. This would have let Chris defuse the speculation before it ever got started. In addition, Chris should not have scheduled the meeting at 4 pm on Friday to discuss such an explosive topic. A morning meeting would have been preferable, and it could have been scheduled on any day, not just on Friday. It would probably have been better to use word-of-mouth for announcing the meeting as well. The memo and its shortness caused the rampant speculation and the nervousness among the workers. Chris must take responsibility for this.
There are several barriers to communication here. First is the clustering of workers into small groups where intensive conversations took place. These conservations stopped when Chris came close to the workers, so he had no idea of what was being discussed, which reduced his ability to stop the fear and the anxiety among the workers. Second is the greater than normal absenteeism among the workers. If they are not at work, then they cannot talk with Chris and other managers about the potential problems. Third is the anger, depression and worry among the workers. Angry people do not communicate well about what is bothering them. Depressed people do talk at all, and when you are worried, you tend to bottle your feelings inside until they reach a pressure point, which happened at the meeting on Friday. These all created barriers to communication, and caused the buildup of frustration and fear that were revealed at the meeting.
This could have been avoided by handling the original message about cost cuts and the meeting in more detail. Actually, the memo would work just fine if Chris had done a better job of explaining the problem and what the meeting was really going to address. Since he did not do that, he should have started asking questions of the workers when he noticed the anger and worry on their faces. He should have known that something was up when they stopped talking to each other when he came near them. That is a really good tipoff that something is not right with them. If he had asked some pointed questions, he could have broken down the barriers and perhaps defused the hostility and anger expressed at the meeting. He could have clearly stopped the speculation concerning the firing or layoffs among the workers and the shifts.
Chris needs to reconsider his use of memos. If he intends to continue using memos, then he needs to be sure that future memos contain information in enough depth so that workers understand the problem and what steps need to be taken to solve it. He would be better advised to begin to talk with his workers one-on-one or in small groups around the areas where they are working. Personal, face-to-face discussions would let Chris address the immediate concerns of the workers, and they let him explain the details in a clearer and more understandable manner. When time and activity require him to use memos, then he must be clearer, more understandable and thorough in dispensing information to the workers. If he does not do this, he will continue to have communication problems with his workers.