Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Walking the Talk: Transparency at Fullhouse on a Difficult Day

At Fullhouse, we talk with clients about the importance of "transparency." And this blog has dedicated quite a few posts to the concept of transparency in Social Media. But can our agency "walk the talk" when the shoe is on the other foot and we face a difficult, sensitive situation? I found out yesterday that we can, and our experience reinforces why transparency isn’t just a tactic to be exercised on Facebook and Twitter but instead is a strategic and cultural imperative for today's social world.

At our agency, we were confronted with an unpleasant situation. It is a common story--one that is reflected in the pages of Ad Age every couple weeks: Client meets agency; Client loves agency; Agency staffs up; Client changes marketing leadership; Client shifts work between agencies; Agency loses revenue and faces difficult staffing decisions. Of course, being a common situation in the agency business doesn't make it any easier to address.

When an employer faces tough situations like this, the tendency is to want to tightly control information. It seems typical for employers to try to hide the situation until such time a staff reduction is announced, and when that occurs the organization is frequently tight-lipped about it to the outside world.

At Fullhouse, our brand is based on frank communications, honesty, and care for our employees and clients, so that guided our approach when we found ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to release valued employees. Our transparency didn't just play itself out on Social Media sites but also in the internal communications we had with team members throughout the process. Two weeks ago we gathered the team and announced that some anticipated work was lost and that we hoped to learn more about our future at a client meeting. A week later we shared specific information about the new and reduced forecasts, and we were honest about all the options on the table. At that time, we promised more information within 10 days, and four business days later we acted. Our decision to reduce the size of the team was extraordinarily difficult, no more so than for the hard-working individuals we had to release.

Throughout the day, we were committed to keeping information flowing. As members of the leadership team were meeting with the affected employees, the chairman sent a message to everyone in the agency saying, in part, "This morning, we are taking the unwanted steps of letting some people go. This will be a tough day for Fullhouse, no doubt. The friends and coworkers leaving our agency are good people who have done excellent work. As a company, we are providing as much support and compassion as we can. I know you will provide the same." Then, that afternoon all employees were called together so that every single decision could be discussed and every employee given the opportunity to voice their questions and feelings.

Soon after employees were informed that coworkers were being let go, we began to participate in information sharing on Twitter. Tweets were broadcast that announced the staff reduction, contact info for the affected professionals were shared, and a dialog occurred about the circumstances. At the same time, links to the former peers' LinkedIn profiles were distributed throughout the team so that friends could post recommendations and assist with sharing contacts.

The reasons to embrace transparency were many, ranging from benevolence to self-interest. While nothing can remove the sting of being released by your employer, we were committed to helping our folks as much as possible; sharing recommendations and alerting peers at other agencies seemed a helpful if modest way to assist.

At the same time--as we counsel our clients--we recognized the need to be part of the dialog rather than sitting on the sidelines and hoping it will all go away quickly if we simply ignore the chatter. Aware that our actions would soon be common knowledge in the Milwaukee interactive community, we decided to have our executives be the first to break the news.

Of course, the primary reason to handle the communications in this manner is simply that it is right for our agency's brand. Transparency is the way we want to live, and if you don't live your brand--well then it's not much of a brand, is it?

Perhaps gauging the impact of our transparency after only one day is too soon to draw proper conclusions, but the experiences of the day helped to reinforce the appropriateness of our openness. In one day, I received three email messages and six tweets asking about the skills of the people we released. It may only be my "survivors' guilt," but I was very happy to be able to assist with new connections for the people we had to let go.

At the same time, perhaps because we were so forthcoming and involved in the Twitterverse, criticism was minimal. The most meaningful and appreciated responses came from some of the individuals who were let go. One sent a direct message saying, "Thanks for the mentions on Twitter today. I had a busy afternoon and today was actually a positive for me." And another, who has always been a class act, tweeted "I've still got nothing but love for Fullhouse. No hard feelings. They were in a tight spot."

These are tough situations, and no one walks away from a staff reduction feeling good about it. In the end, our transparency served to help those who are no longer part of Fullhouse as well as those who are. On a day like yesterday, that's about as much as anyone can ask for.

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Nancy said...

As a former corporate communicator for a big company, I can't applaud you enough about the fine way you handled this situation. Social media offers powerful communication tools that until has now often just delivered gossip and news events -- both good and bad -- quickly and bluntly. It's great to learn how Full House used social media tools to help these individuals inform and cultivate leads for new placements. What an ingenious morale booster for everyone!

I hope this is the beginning of a case study for helping corporate HR departments communicate better. Your work is admirable and should be brought to the attention of corporate communicators worldwide.

Vicki Kunkel said...

Kudos to the Fullhouse management team on handling this difficult situation with class and, more importantly, concern for your fellow workers.

What a great way to use social media to help these people create "buzz" and branding in their personal searches for new employment.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Nancy and Vicki,

It's been a tough couple of weeks, but the transparency really seems to have helped both the people we had to let go as well the folks who need to keep their focus on client and team needs. Our leaders have received quite a few comments from folks indicating they felt communications were handled as well as could be expected.

We even had one person send our chairman's all-agency email message to his wife, who's been part of several layoffs. She responded that she wanted to send it to some of her past bosses so they could see how to handle info sharing in such a sensitive way.

Helping out the people we had to release was never a question, of course, but it's been rewarding to know that Social Media and the networks we've created can be used so effectively to assist in this situation.

I'm still keeping in touch with the folks we had to let go. They're sad--and so am I. But I think most already have some exciting discussions and interviews in the works.

Appreciate the comments!

Mike Rohde said...

Augie, as someone viewing the situation from the outside who knows the business, I'm impressed. Thanks for being transparent -- says a lot about your integrity and the integrity of Fullhouse as well.

Augie Ray said...

Mike, The comments here, on Twitter, and from employees--both current and former--lead me to believe the transparency in our culture served us very well in a very difficult situation. I appreciate the comments! Thanks!

Jeff Larche said...

I want to join the chorus and offer my kudos on handling a sad situation in the best possible way.

Clients come and go -- and sometimes employees must go as well -- but an organization that handles there departures the way yours has will be all the stronger for it.

Well done.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Jeff,

In a weird sort of way, I'm uncomfortable with the nice comments. I mean, no one really wants to be praised for making staff reductions easy! They were tough, and they're supposed to be tough.

But, a peer shared some wisdom. He said that being a "best place to work" (which we were just named) doesn't mean we are immune to the problems of other companies--it just means we'll strive to deal with them better.

Thanks for the support!