March 11, 2010

Employers strive to improve moraleCompanies get creative to help their workers deal with tough times.


— By . KIM

Staff Writer

All kinds of strategies exist for keeping up workplace morale in these economically turbulent times. Keep the lines of communications open. Acknowledge that employees may feel anxious. Be compassionate to those whose jobs have been eliminated.

And then there are piñatas.

Every few months there's a group birthday party for employees at the Best Western Senator Inn & Spa in Augusta. The banquet kitchen puts together a buffet, birthday cards are presented to the guests of honor and blindfolded employees whack a piñata filled with goodies.

David Hopkins, the general manager and piñata controller, said the hope was to help release employees' inner child. It seems to him to have worked.

''At first, the employees all kind of stood there and said, 'Oh, candy.' Then somebody said, 'Look! A gas card!' Now they know there are good things in there,'' Hopkins said. ''It looks like a mosh pit sometimes.''

The recession is encouraging workplaces to be thoughtful -- and creative -- about boosting employee morale. It's not simply a matter of being nice, according to human resources specialists. Poor morale, they say, can lead to decreased productivity -- an especially troubling possibility in difficult times.

Companies like Motorola Inc. and EBay Inc. are considering allowing employees to swap near-valueless stock options for others at a lower price. L.L. Bean thanked employees with $330 recognition gifts this year despite layoffs looming on the horizon. Basketball fanatics are seeing March Madness brackets as a way to bond with colleagues. The canine-crazed are touting the productivity-boosting potential of their favorite pets as they promote ''Take Your Dog to Work Day.''

There are signs that the economy has taken an emotional toll on employees.

Calls to employee-assistance program counselors increased 10 percent in 2008, according to a report by Harris, Rothenberg International, a New York-based human resources firm. Sixty-two percent of calls were about personal issues, with relationships, family issues, stress, depression and anxiety the top concerns. Eleven percent were job-related, with poor concentration, career issues, workplace dissatisfaction, conflict with a supervisor and declining performance the top worries.

It's natural that morale will affect productivity, especially when layoffs leave remaining employees worried, said Ray Inglesi, president and founding principal of Drake Inglesi Milardo, Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Portland.

''It takes an extraordinary person, I think, to go into work in an uncertain situation and keep their head to the grindstone,'' he said. ''There are a lot of things that are pressing on people, and it results in stress. When you're highly stressed, you can't function as well.''

After layoffs, Inglesi said, leaders need to allow employees to talk about their feelings in an open environment, and leaders must remain visible.

''You can't build trust by being remote, by not communicating,'' he said.

The way an employer handles layoffs will have a big effect on the workplace, said Monique Isherwood, a consultant at Portland-based D. Gallant Management Associates.

Outplacement services can help laid-off workers with aspects of their job search, like networking and resume-writing. It's an approach Isherwood believes will also help morale of the remaining employees.

''They say, 'Look what the company's willing to do,' '' she said. ''They're not left with that same amount of fear.''

A morale-boosting effort at Northeast Bank is led by employees. Alisa Austin, a senior accounting specialist in the Lewiston headquarters, began organizing Northeast Bank Employees Care in late 2007.

The group holds regular fundraising events to help colleagues struggling with difficulties, such as a spouse's layoff or a death in the family. Each department organizes a fundraiser ranging from the sale of cookbooks of employee recipes to raffles to candy-gram messages for workplace pals. An employee in each of the company's locations keeps a watch out for co-workers who may need help. The assistance to co-workers has ranged in monetary value from $50 to $500.

''It gives our employees a sense of something bigger than themselves,'' Austin said.

At the state Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, the Health and Safety Team has recently held events for co-workers that are particularly relevant in the current economy.

''In the past six to 12 months, we've turned our attention to helping employees deal with financial matters and stress,'' said Doug Dunbar, a department spokesman.

Larry Adlerstein, owner of Portland-based Artist & Craftsman Supply, sees employee morale as integral to the success of his business. Adlerstein said business was up about 10 percent last year at his chain of 14 stores.

For several years, Adlerstein has held retreats twice a year to build relationships among managers and central staff. Discussing business plans are a big part of the gathering, but so is being fed by the boss and the general manager, Steve Kenney.

''It's family. Steve and I, with our sweat, are showing our appreciation,'' Adlerstein said. ''We cook the whole weekend.''

Others employees get to be served by Adlerstein during his store visits. He's developed various methods to cook for employees and their families in the kitchenettes of his motel rooms. He might, for example, do a stir-fry by cooking a couple of ingredients at a time in the single available frying pan and before putting the components together.

Hopkins, the hotel manager, plans to continue the piñata birthday parties and other efforts to show care for employees even after the recession ends.

In their business, he said, it's particularly important to remain positive since employees are interacting with guests.

''If the employees are happy,'' he said, ''They'll spread that around.''

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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