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8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Jeffrey S. Ford did not relish the decision to implement a pay freeze at Columbus/Worthington Air and eliminate bonuses for all management staff. But his ability to convince employees that these moves were indeed painful to make would go a long way toward determining how much support he could expect from employees in the future.

“If it doesn’t start at the top and they don’t see it affecting me first, they are going to have a problem with it,” says the president of the 46-employee HVAC service provider. “So any decision I make, I make sure that I’m involved, first and foremost, if it has a detrimental effect.”

It can be quite challenging to strike the right balance between empathy for your people and the strength to make the tough decisions to keep your business going. Ford says it really comes down to the simple concept of honesty. Despite the challenging economy, Columbus/Worthington Air reached $7.8 million in 2008 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Ford about how to build a level of trust between you and your employees.

Q. What’s the key to making tough moves?

Make sure every one of your team members is involved in the entire process. You don’t want to keep anything from them. You want to lay it on the line each and every day so that they will trust you are doing only what is necessary to keep the business going on the right path.

If you don’t keep them informed, they’ll lose focus and you’ll have a mess on your hands. They’ll wonder what’s next and what is it they are not telling us and that will do nothing but lead to poor productivity and an unhealthy work environment.

You’re going to make some bad judgments, but you have to make the call. Sometimes they have to be an impromptu call, but you have to feel like it’s in the best interest of the entire organization and that includes all the team members.

You’re not always going to make great decisions. As long as you communicate what your objectives are and what you’re trying to have happen and then go back and explain it to them and say, ‘This didn’t work, we had to go this route.’ If you don’t explain the change you have to make, they are going to throw doubt your way.

If you’re honest and forthright with everything you are trying to do, you’re never going to have to backtrack. I learned that many years ago from my boss, Frank Pronesti. No one will ever doubt your word if you’re honest with them.

Not once can you think about a negative outcome — always a positive outcome. That doesn’t mean that everything is going to go great. But if you have a positive outlook, I can pretty much guarantee something positive is going to happen.

Q. How do you respond to employee concerns?

The last thing you want to do is be condescending. They need time to breathe, to think, to help that person heal. Because we are such a tight-knit group, it is like letting go of a family member. Everybody in this organization is very close to one or three or four people. If you let go of somebody, there is going to be some animosity. The thing I do is I make sure I talk to the people I thought were closest to that individual one on one and let them air their grievances.

They just want to talk and get it out on the table. I want them to be able to vent to me, not to other people to start the gossip chain. I want them to come to me. In company meetings and in division meetings, I make that statement before I leave every time: ‘If you have something you need to discuss one on one so it doesn’t get out into the gossip world, please come see me.’ People know you can talk to me about anything, and it’s going to stay with me. That’s the key. They know they can say anything they want to me, and it’s not going to be shared with anyone — not with their manager, with anybody.

Q. How do you help the employee feel more comfortable?

There isn’t anything else more important than that conversation with me. We’ll come in my office and go into a corner. I’ll sit directly across from them. There is no laptop or desktop. I move away from my desk to my conference table. I’ll give them the option.

I’ll say, ‘You know what, if you don’t feel comfortable talking in here, let’s go out and get something to eat or let’s take a walk outside.’ Sometimes walking and talking helps them express themselves better. Sometimes sitting down at lunch.

They don’t feel like they are in an environment that I’m going to win because I’m in my office. If they have their own office, I’ll go in their office and shut the door. I want them to feel like they are in their most comfortable environment in telling me what’s going on in their head.

If I need to take notes, I’ll take notes. But more often than not, when that situation occurs, it’s nothing more than me engaging and listening and keeping constant eye contact. You have to acknowledge with emotion and a shaking of the head that you understand what they are saying. You have to be engaged or it’s not going to look good.

How to reach: Columbus/Worthington Air, (614) 771-7001 or www.cwaohio.com