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Execs: Do You Really Want Fearful Employees?

"Some people take the time off but feel bad about doing so, out of loyalty to bosses and colleagues left to carry the workload. Others work quietly – and sometimes openly – through furloughs, because they fear for the long-term safety of their positions and hope their self-sacrifice impresses the management.

And some say the message from the management is unclear, leaving employees wondering: Is this real time off?" – From a New York Times articleby Susan Saulny and Robbie Brown

As far as cost-cutting measures go, arranging worker furloughs is up there with the least painless, right? In fact, the way furloughs share the pain around is almost socialistic, allowing more employees to maintain at least some income while the company adjusts to harder times. It would appear that there's just one problem with the theory: many companies still expect to get through the same amount of work despite—in some cases—furloughing up to 20 percent of their capacity.

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It won't come as too much of a surprise to learn that many workers surveying the economic wasteland have come to the conclusion that, furloughed or not, they're going to keep showing up. While the New York Times article quoted abovemakes it clear that the reasons for doing so are manifold, it also gives the impression that the overriding atmosphere in the workforce at the moment is one of fear—people working longer, harder, and for less money to try and ensure that they're not going to be handed a pink slip in the event of further cuts.

Workers doing the same amount of work, or more, for less money might sound like every employer's dream—especially in a recession—but it's worth bearing in mind what the Times piece is focusing on: the fact that employees were promised furloughs in exchange for a reduction in salary, but are now either finding the furlough time difficult to arrange, or are too afraid of the consequences of actually using it. The result: what started as a furlough for many workers now remains one in name only; in reality, it's a pay cut. Unlike employees who received pay cuts that were actually called pay cuts, however, those who thought they were getting furloughs are entitled to feel more than a little betrayed by management if the promised time off doesn't materialize. One worker cited in the article sums it up best:

"There was some optimism. It was a trade-off for sure, but people were O.K. The mood now, I would say, is down. People are working in fear because they don't know what's going to happen next."

While some level of uncertainty and fear is inevitable in these unprecedented times, it's important to recognize that they have limitations as motivational factors; specifically, there's a fine line between an employee's concern over their future driving them to greater heights and driving them to look elsewhere for a more secure environment—and that goes double if those same employees feel they've been sold a bill of goods regarding furlough time.

In short, if managers have promised employees additional time off, they need to enforce it. For everyone. Regardless of whether or not it's good for the business in the short term. Because in the long term, a company or manager that promises an employee one thing and delivers another—whether intentionally or not—is going to lose the trust of that employee and any others who come to hear about it. And when trust disappears, good employees will surely follow. So while employees "choosing" to work through furloughs might be good for your company in the short term, managers who allow it are setting themselves up for long-term pain.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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