Secretarial: Whose side are you on?

Workplace rumours can put PAs in a delicate position.
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The Independent Culture
LATE LAST year, the chief executive of a company which was in the midst of downsizing decided to lightheartedly remind his staff that they were still valued. So he sent them a mail-merge letter wishing them a merry Christmas. "PS," he added, "Don't worry about the redundancies, we'll let you know next year!"

According to a recent study by Collinson Grant Consultants, this kind of communications cock-up - which inevitably causes employees to worry more rather than less - is increasingly prevalent. The poll of UK employers reveals that a staggering number of organisations fail to plan how they will tell staff about restructuring, resulting in rumours - and consequently anxiety - becoming rife. Indeed, some 140 of the 193 employers who have restructured their firms in the past five years admitted to having had such problems.

For secretarial staff, the consequences can be severe. "Not only do they have the same concerns as every other employee, but they also have to deal with the common assumption that secretaries - particularly those at the top - know exactly what's going on because they are most likely to be `in' on the meetings and may even have access to the relevant documents," explains Angela Edward, a policy adviser for the Institute of Personnel and Development.

Susan, a 34-year-old PA in the City, knows this all too well. "Last year, no less than 40 employees came to ask me whether rumours were true about redundancies and who was on the hit-list. I genuinely didn't know anymore than them and feared for my job as much as they did. But I was disbelieved and even shunned by some staff members."

Careers adviser Ellen Richardson believes such attitudes are on the rise. "In a climate where job insecurity is at a peak, employees get more frustrated than ever at rumours about downsizing. Since they can't risk venting this in the direction of their superiors, the superiors' assistants may be the next best option."

According to business psychologist Marie Mosely, PAs and secretaries should take advantage of their role. "Because it is you whom people are approaching and you who has the rare opportunity of spending time alone with managers, you're probably in the best position to point out the repercussions of poor communications systems," she says. In 43 per cent of the restructured firms polled for the study, for example, staff turnover rose during the changes, while in 41 per cent stress-related illness, lower productivity or short-term absenteeism caused problems. "Propose a general meeting, a series of informative memorandums and even a staff rep who can be responsible for making a note of the most common concerns," she advises. "It will show your boss not only that you care about the future of the organisation and its staff, but that you have shown initiative in suggesting some solutions."

Some companies have found it particularly effective to set up a communications planning team - with representatives from every department - to discuss the best ways of divulging information and killing false rumours. "We try to get employee reps involved in things from the start," says Jane Relf, project manager, communications, at Vertex Data Science.

If, as a secretary, you do know what's going on, the test on your integrity can be at its toughest, says Richardson. But the fact that the word "secretary" has "secret" in it should serve as a reminder to your professional ethic, she cautions. "Remind your colleagues of this, adding that as soon as you are at liberty to pass on any news, you will do so. It will show them that you're not on anyone's side and that decisions about relaying information are out of your hands."

Practise your stock response, she advises, and use it repeatedly. "Eventually, people have no choice but to hear what you've said and any sentence that's repeated is more likely to remain imprinted on someone's mind. A mistake that a great many secretaries make is to disclose a snippet of information in the hope that they will retain their popularity and satisfy enough of the colleague's curiosity to make them leave you alone. But in fact, it will simply make them believe you're a soft touch."

Ben Williams, a chartered corporate psychologist who specialises in change management, adds that it can be helpful to suggest approaching the source of the rumour. "People are always amazed how easily bits get added on to a story that's going around an office. Through a bit of detective work, it can be possible to get to the root of it."

In any case, he says, restructuring is not always negative. "It could mean a move, a merger or a reshuffle of roles," he says. "In terms of career prospects, it could even be good news."