( Photo by The Packer staff )

Leading your company with decisiveness can seem like the way to go. It’s strong. Firm answers can encourage employees to feel confident and secure in their company. 

Employees need assurance, especially in these uncertain times.

But sometimes, it’s better to tell your employees that you don’t know, speakers at the “Managing Workforce Challenges in a COVID-19 Environment” session said at the virtual United Fresh Washington Conference.

Remaining silent until you have an answer for your next step during a crisis can cause employees even more stress, said Jon DeVaney, president of Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

“Some employers went quiet,” DeVaney said, while they were working on solutions in the first weeks of the pandemic.
That made employees think they didn’t care. Several fruit packing houses had walkouts and strikes.

“We’re all used to thinking, ‘When I have a plan, I’ll communicate it with my employees.’ Have a plan for when we don’t know. Have a plan in place on how we communicate in evolving situations and when we don’t know what we’re going to do,” DeVaney said.

For instance, many employers couldn’t get their hands on enough, and the right kind, of personal protective equipment in those first weeks when even health care workers had shortages and couldn’t protect themselves.

“We couldn’t get anything. We spent days on the phone trying to source PPE from vendors,” said Laura Penera, human resources manager at Braga Fresh Family Farms, Soledad, Calif. “We made sure our employees knew we were working on it and that we can’t get ahold of it.”

The call for more transparency applies here. Share at least enough information that conveys you aren’t sitting idly in your cushy office while they risk their lives in a pandemic to feed the world. 

You know you’re working your butt off to figure out what guidance to follow when it’s changing so fast, and it differs from state to state, sometimes even county to county. 

You know you care about their lives and their families.

Don’t just tell them you care. Show them what you’re doing, even if it’s not successful yet.

In a time of fear and uncertainty, employees need reassurance you’re on their side. 

Yes, you’ve got a business to run. And not everything is their business to know. 

Yet you know that your business won’t run without them. Qualified, stable labor is tough enough to get, keep and pay for as it is.

Make space for them to talk, to ask questions and to hear updates from you.
Hold a regularly scheduled staff meeting on how the crisis is affecting the company and what could impact employees. Create an anonymous hotline. Send out e-mail updates. Do Zoom chats where people can ask questions.

“We’re hearing more from our workforce a desire to be heard, so we beefed up our social responsibility team,” said Toby Purse, chief farm officer of Lipman Family Farms, Immokalee, Fla.

So, go ahead. Overshare just a bit.

Letting your guard down can create a real bond of trust that lasts through the bad times and the good.

Share your humanity. Share what you know that could be helpful, and don’t avoid the uncomfortable uncertainty.

Fear of the unknown is often worse.

Name it. Lean into it. Own it.

Amy Sowder is The Packer’s Northeast editor. E-mail her at asowder@farmjournal.com. 

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United Fresh wants to extend USDA programs beyond crisis