Healing Workplace Wounds

December 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Ken Taber might be thought of as a workplace chaplain. A pastor and psychotherapist, Taber, principal of Ken Taber & Associates, serves the workplace in times of tragedy and despair. His firm addresses "seemingly unsolvable problems" concerning communication breakdowns, low morale and most frequently, loss.

In recent years, the West Michigan workplace has had to deal with a significant degree of loss at all levels — with none more hurtful to a worker than the loss of his or her position.

"It's a crisis in that person's life," Taber explained. "They don't know what will happen. They usually feel shame, fear or anger, and it always triggers self-doubt. 'Why me?' they wonder."

Taber's group is contracted when a company is eliminating a position or department as part of a work force reduction or outsourcing strategy. The employer genuinely regrets having to make the announcement, especially when it involves long-time employees.

The "outplacement" service allows employers to provide a dignified and hopeful exit. Through this, the company can maintain a working relationship with the employee in the future, and protect its reputation in general. For the remaining workers, knowing that they will be treated graciously should they ever suffer the same fate can keep morale up.

Before the announcement, Taber, or one of his associates, works with the company to stage a humane way of letting the employee go. When the individual is notified, Taber immediately steps in and begins crisis resolution.

"We check their way of thinking and what implications it has for their future," he said. "This is the same kind of counseling we've done in private practice for when there is a death."

In a way, Taber said, something has died. But opposite that, there is a potential for rebirth. The job loss is only the first step in a process that could take months. The certified career counselors in Taber's group become mentors and coaches to help the candidate redefine his or her career.

"Career counseling is something not understood generally because most people have never had it," Taber said. "Call it career management. Not everyone owns their jobs, but they own their careers."

First, candidates are asked to evaluate their selection process: What work are they motivated to do? What kind of company do they want to work for? What type of manager? A shift in careers or industries may be needed.

Once the candidate has developed a vision of his or her future, that message must be effectively communicated. They also have to explain why they are unemployed. This is where displaced individuals have the most trouble, according to Taber.

Candidates need to understand that they are not powerless in the interview process. They have control over their answers, attitude and how they present themselves. Many times, workers are handicapped by demeanors developed on the job. Some workers are too driven by instincts and emotions. Others — engineers, for instance — might be too analytical.

One recent case involved a successful manager from the manufacturing sector. In interviews, he was overly aggressive concerning the amount of money he could make the company, and "wasn't showing his human side."

"When you're a manager, you can't be just technology and profit margin," Taber said.

After four months of unsuccessful searching, the client had a breakthrough.

"He said he wasn't going to go for money anymore," Taber recalled. "He landed (a job) in three weeks, moving to another industry, and he did better than the six figures he was making."

The entire process, however lengthy, is paid for by the original employer at the time of dismissal.

Tabor's experience with workplace relationships and corporate culture has translated into parallel services. Often, his firm is brought in to address the uncertainty and morale issues that follow layoffs.

"Everyone is frightened, they all think they're the next one to go," he said. "They're waiting for the next shoe to drop, and begin not talking to people. They begin to hunker down and isolate themselves. They become very vigilant, hyper-vigilant."

In this bunker mentality, communication grinds to a standstill. In individual and group sessions, Taber's firm works to "heal the wound."

Other times, Taber faces the same issues of distrust and misunderstanding in a company's everyday operations. He recalled one example in which communication had gradually broken down between a manager and an employee. The employee saw the manager as demanding and brash. As productivity slipped, the anxiety between the two grew worse.

Taber worked with each individually to help them discover their skills and strengths. He later brought the two together to share what they had learned. Each saw the skills, strengths, weaknesses and preferences of the other. The two were then able to interact with trust and understanding, and productivity improved as a result.

Other departments, upon observing the progression from adversarial to complementary relationship, emulated the trust-building exercise.    

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