Honesty is the best way to help staff adjust to changes

No chief executive wants to give bad news or ask staff to work harder for less, writes Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

When I started working in the voluntary sector in the 1980s, I didn't think of the work I was doing as a career. I was very happy to be working for the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless as its internal support person - covering office management, computer management and HR.

Looking back, I think I had a vague plan B that some kind of work in a local authority HR department would be possible if the organisation could no longer pay me. Even under the political regime of the time - Margaret Thatcher - our funding from government was not under threat.

These days, things are different. Many people have made the voluntary sector a career because the work has been available. In the days before commissioning, grants were relatively generous and even central government would fund infrastructure organisations.

The cold winds of change scything through our community in the past three or four years have put the security of many long-standing sector organisations into question. Many have had to engage in heavy cuts to staffing and made fundamental changes to structures. So under these circumstances, how do you help the remaining staff to come to terms with the new landscape?

Let's face it - it's hard. No chair of trustees or chief executive wants to give bad news or ask staff to work harder for less. It's important to put the reasons for the changes in both a political and economic context. As Martyn Lewis, chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said recently: "Although the economic environment is still challenging, I can't help but think that we must focus our attention on those who are challenging our ways of working, our motivations and our place in building a better society."

Working hard to be resilient

Being honest with staff without frightening them is the best option. Acknowledging difficulties and maintaining good, direct communication must be the starting point. It helps build or rebuild trust. We can't hide the fact that times are difficult, but we can reassure staff that we are working hard to be resilient in an operating environment that is driven by politics more than economics.

Members of staff might also need to be reassured that it's not their fault - and that the trustees do have the knowledge and skills to make correct decisions, given the times we live in.

I accept this is a difficult balancing act. Staff also need to know what the medium-term plans are for repositioning the charity - marketing, campaigning or local fundraising - and how they can help.

If we engage with staff in this way and ask for their ideas, they will know that their leaders are aware of the challenges and doing something sensible about it - not just sleepwalking towards the end game.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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