5 Questions for Sue Oliver Driving Results With a Smaller Workforce

By Jessica Marquez

Jun. 4, 2009

As a former HR executive at Wal-Mart and American Airlines, Sue Oliver has spent a lot of time focusing on how to get the most out of employees. Today, as many employers are laying off staff, cutting pay and slashing benefits, they are doing it with a smaller workforce. Oliver, who earlier this year founded her own consulting company, Katana Partners (named after a type of Samurai sword), says the key is that companies must analyze employee behaviors and use that to keep them engaged. Oliver recently spoke to Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez.

Workforce Management: Why is employee analysis so important for employers and what does it mean?

Sue Oliver: Most often employees are 50 to 70 percent of companies’ expenses, but yet most companies don’t have any rigor around the kinds of data they collect about employee and managers’ attitudes. Simply doing some kind of segmenting like cluster analysis allows a company to understand what the segments of employees and managers are and what is driving the attitudes and behaviors from the top segment—who are usually the most high-performing, most productive workers that can be a company’s brand ambassadors—to the bottom segment, who are the most disenchanted.

WM: How can companies address “survivor’s guilt” that many remaining workers feel after layoffs?

Oliver: Communication is really the biggest benefit that a company can provide in a difficult time like this. I know that there are sometimes things that are confidential, but companies can be upfront about that. You want employees to feel valued and that they are being listened to, even if the news they are getting isn’t good news.

WM: Is there a way of conducting layoffs that can make the impact less harmful on the remaining workforce?

Oliver: If there is time, involving employees in any sorts of choices that are possible can be helpful. For example, saying, “If we don’t get this contract, we have estimated that 250 of our employees are going to have to be let go. We are also willing to consider a number of other options and we have five days to consider those options.” Let employees understand the business case. At American Airlines, we conducted a lot of layoffs after 9/11, but we were able to offer up part-time work and ask employees if they were able to job-share. Let people have a choice if you can.

WM: What else can companies do to help employees feel more in control during these difficult times?

Oliver: The other part of this is keeping in touch with people and understanding their issues. For example, I was talking to a prospective client last week and they had a 5 percent management pay cut, and had taken away the 401(k) match and were lamenting on how to get the workforce to rally back. They decided to extend casual Fridays to Mondays. Now there is no doubt that some employees appreciated that, but they are just guessing at what could make a difference in employee morale without knowing anything concrete.

WM: What would you say to those employers that believe they don’t have the time or resources to do the kind of analysis you suggest?

Oliver: Any amount of investment dollars put into this will be realized within six to 12 months. You can even do it with an online survey, which is very inexpensive. Companies need to figure out how to achieve a greater percentage of employees who are higher performers. The reason for that is at most companies, 10 percent of the workforce is bottom performers. If the company believes that each of those employees can affect $1,000 of business over a 12-month period, they can make up that difference by addressing their productivity.

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