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Talk Isn't Cheap

February 1, 2009
by Tim Tolan
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How a CIO delivers news about layoffs can make a big difference in the IT department

Everyone that's read a newspaper, watched the evening news or has an Internet connection already knows that the layoffs across the United States are very real. Now, they have found their way into the healthcare segment and trickled down to the CIO's shop. Ouch! Most of the hospital closings have been smaller facilities with low occupancy rates, while others face huge deficits due to insufficient financial aid at the state level to cover the expenses in treating the uninsured. While the trend appears to be isolated to certain geographic markets, it is a reality we must deal with. Reductions have never been a normal trend in healthcare IT by any means; but then again, there is nothing normal about this economic environment.

As the CIO for your healthcare enterprise, you owe it to your staff to communicate the good, the bad and the ugly news as quickly as possible to help shore up support from the remaining members of your team. Move quickly to deliver the news as the final outcome is determined. Remember, bad news early is one thing, but bad news late can have a detrimental outcome — so don't delay.

The most important thing you can do when delivering this news is to be honest with your team. Discuss the reasons that you are making the changes, and try your best to convey the positive message that in all likelihood, the currently announced reductions should help solve the problem and stabilize employment. You and I both know that you can't make promises about the future without some caveats, but you also don't want your remaining team to lose productivity and morale. Let's face it, with a reduced IT staff, everyone will have to pitch in and do more to maintain the service levels and deal with an increased workload. Be crystal clear about your expectations in getting the job done with each member of your team. It is important that those left standing see themselves as being part of the solution. By calling them into action, you are in effect empowering them to become a participant of the new world order.

Try to discuss the general reasons why each employee retained was not selected in the RIF (reduction in force) and express your confidence in their ability to work with an increased list of responsibilities and duties. Openly discuss how you, the CIO, will do your best to provide assistance to those that were laid off. They all want to know that you did the right thing for those that were impacted by the RIF. In the end, it is what it is. However, you must continue to demonstrate your leadership skills and stand behind your decisions during this period of uncertainty.

Discuss how the remaining employees can work collectively to help turn the tide and make the organization as productive as possible. Be specific and let your team know that you know they can get the job done and that you are counting on them to get back to work and take on their new role, as well as their increased workload. Have a team meeting with your technology leads, providing revised organizational charts. Get them engaged in an active discussion about the new world order and let them express their thoughts about how to spread out the workload with a smaller IT team. Your willingness to listen to their thoughts and ideas will go a long way in helping restore their confidence in the organization.

Your IT team should have some comfort knowing that you have given them the facts, not leaving them to rely on speculation or the trusty rumor mill. Poor communication during a RIF can lead to a possible flight risk for the remaining team members and with an increased workload, the outcome can become a disaster.

Finally, find ways to show your appreciation for the remaining members of your team after the dust settles. Make sure your gesture is genuine and be specific as to why you are rewarding them. An ounce of appreciation is worth a pound of improved morale.

Healthcare Informatics 2009 February;25(14):54