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Source: Nicole Laster, 785-532-6875, laster@k-state.edu
http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/lasterbio.html
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, media@k-state.edu

Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

K-STATE COMMUNICATION EXPERT SAYS WHEN COMPANIES FACE DOWNSIZING AND OTHER CHANGES, EMPLOYEES CAN STAY IN THE KNOW BY INITIATING CONVERSATIONS WITH BOSSES

MANHATTAN -- Wondering how safe your job is in this economy? The best way to find out might simply be to ask, according to a communication expert at Kansas State University.

The answer you receive -- or don't receive -- may indicate a lot about the culture of the company as well as the security of your job.

"When employees are not receiving adequate information from management about their potential/perceived concerns, employees are likely to become anxious and complain," said Nicole Laster, assistant professor of communication studies. "But communication is a two-way street. It's also their responsibility to be information-seekers. Sitting back and waiting is not proactive or healthy."

Laster works with leaders in business and other organizations to manage change through adaptive communication strategies.

"We are at the height of large-scale change," she said. "If your company is not currently experiencing large changes, there is certainly a threat it might because you're hearing about it on the news and seeing it happen at surrounding companies."

Signaled information increases employees' ability to cope, and it also benefits the organization in ways that managers and employees want to see. And in a time of increasing organizational uncertainty, sharing information amongst the ranks ameliorates a lot of problems, Laster said.

Employees who are informed about organizational changes are not only more willing to comply and less likely to resist, they are more comfortable with changes, Laster said. These employees also have an increased sense of belonging and a greater sense of trust in the organization, have more faith in the competency of their company and a better perception of its ethics, she said.

Although businesses have legal concerns when communicating with employees about things like layoffs, budget cuts and downsizing, Laster said there are ways to mediate employee concerns with information. In most cases, information travels formally from the top down, she said. However, employees are often very acute to changes long before they become announced.

"The grapevine is alive and generally fairly accurate, but information can be unclear or a little distorted," Laster said. "Employees should take the initiative to find out what's going on, but they need to tread carefully."

She said that employees can informally implement communication that isn't top-down. She said they can ask management for regular updates.

"When and if you do, frame your inquiries from the position that knowing what's going on helps you to execute your job better," Laster said. "In addition, allied support from other people in the organization can often make the approach easier and appear to management as a significant and shared concern."

Laster said employees often create informal support systems by inviting co-workers to talk about changes in their jobs or departments.

"Even if your interaction doesn't result in a tangible and tactical solution to coping, just creating a connection with others can help you deal with change," she said.

Laster said that these types of grassroots communication efforts by employees are more common or acceptable at more decentralized companies that promote a value of participative democracy -- think Google -- where there's usually a flatter hierarchy, Laster said.

Before 2001, tech company employees and other knowledge workers worried much less about radical changes such as downsizing and layoffs in the way that manufacturing workers always have, Laster said. But today, no one feels safe and not communicating about it increases uncertainty and speculation, she said.

"Ten years ago I would have said that laborers felt the pressure more than knowledge workers," Laster said. "Now, everybody's feeling it."

Laster's research focuses on change escalation and how organizations can create initial announcements about changes that manage large-scale or long-term changes in organizations. Managers often fear making announcements about any kind of change, whether it is a merger, a downsize, a restructure or even a new technology implementation because they want to avoid chaos, confusion and resistance, she said. Moreover, they often edit announcements by failing to include a trajectory of changes and the potential human capital impact.

"What management fails to remember is that initial reactions can be managed if perceived as honest and not withholding," Laster said. "Once information is shared, adjustment can begin. Even if stressful, coping sooner rather than later is much healthier for everyone."