Maintaining Organisation Wellness in Uncertain Economic Times

As the global economy slows, persons at leadership levels will be tested to create stability and demonstrate unwavering strength above the uncertain business undercurrents. Uncertainty surrounds not only the downturn’s depth and duration, though these are decidedly big unknowns, but also the very future of the global economic order which, until recently was characterized by free-flowing capital and trade and by our ever-deepening economic ties. 

The issues facing Trinidad and Tobago organisations are quite similar to those issues identified in the international arena with maybe a twist of weighting and emphasis. 

The Plymouth Jazz Festival has been cancelled where the loss of sponsors, the poor economy and lack of interest among travellers from the U.S. and Canada were cited as main reasons. Our local carnival mas bands noted the decrease in masqueraders this year compared to last year. 

Our Government had to render assistance to a major financial organisation that experienced cash flow challenges. Trinidad has been experiencing lay offs in finance, construction, engineering firms and maybe soon in Government. Unions have been getting involved to ensure terminated employees receive adequate severance packages. 

Organisations have reduced their budgets significantly for 2009 resulting in hiring freezes, minimal to zero salary increases and or bonuses.

At Guardian Holdings Ltd. (GHL), we have had to curb our spending as well, we applied a scalpel approach to determining which items would get reduced funding. Penny wise and pound foolish decisions will mark the spot for the inexperienced leaders who are too short sighted without considering the long term impact. We used a highly collaborative approach to scale back our budgets for 2009 ensuring our relevant stakeholders were consulted prior to budget approvals for 2009. This time consuming process ensures adequate understanding and buy-in. 

GHL maintains its goal to become the regional wealth management and protection champion. This is driven more than ever before by our belief that the quality of our people and systems are excellent lead indicators to future business performance and results. In any financial crisis, an effective, efficient, engaged workforce is our single greatest competitive advantage. 

Our 2009 plan is built around innovatively driving employee engagement as a means of delivering on our strategic plan within budgetary restrictions in the context of an uncertain economic climate.  A myopic mentality can be self-defeating. We must refrain from making knee-jerk decisions and instead carefully consider a strategic human capital framework. 

We will touch on our plans for communication, training and development, performance management, reward, recognition and innovation, recruitment, values, ethics and culture, employee assistance support and cost-effective work life programmes. 


This downturn is an opportunity for many leaders to build brand, trust and credibility among their team and their employees. During this financial crisis, strong leadership is critical to keep the people focused and motivated against all odds. Now is not the time to crumble under the pressure of a falling share price, employees need a steady hand with a clear focus. Communication must be a key ingredient in this main course and be actively managed as a matter of urgency. 

We prepared a stakeholder analysis and devised a comprehensive communication plan that tailored key messages to relevant stakeholders specifying the frequency, mode of communication and who is responsible for delivering the messages. Early, honest, on time and concise messages will serve to dispel rumours. 

The messages are about how the financial crisis developed and its impact on Guardian Holdings, our prudent spending plan for 2009, appreciation and thanks for hard work and commitment. Proactive communication and feedback will continue alongside all the initiatives for 2009. We must engage the staff and hear their concerns, fears and comments and respond quickly and honestly. 

We maintain that going back to basics of treating people fairly with respect go a long way in gaining understanding, buy-in and commitment to weather the financial storm. 

We have our Guardian In Touch programme which is a tool for employees to forward their comments, questions and or concerns to the leadership. We also have a blog set up on our intranet where employees can post questions directly to our CEO. 

Leaders must demonstrate a strong concern for their people through open sincere communication, inexpensive tokens of appreciation, recognition of hard work, increased flexibility and other such non cash ways. 


Our reduced training budget has forced us to devise innovative ways to close training gaps at minimal cost but still maintain quality outcomes.

We have substituted online training for expensive off site or class room training. 

We have tapped into our ELM database to identify potential trainers based on their skills inventory so they can populate our new internal faculty of trainers. 

We must spend precious dollars on mandatory training like fraud, anti money laundering and Health and Safety training to remain compliant. 

We have also launched a coaching programme using internal coaches to help improve the performance of selected employees. We are about to launch our Guardian Angel programme that pairs a new employee with a Guardian Angel. It is specifically aimed at reducing the new employee turnover (1-5 years) by having an all encompassing orientation programme and decreasing the learning curve. 

We are capitalising on free training from institutions like National Insurance Board, Board of Inland Revenue and Central Bank. 

We suggest that if one should need an external trainer, they can seek to partner with other organisations that may also benefit from the external resource and thus share the cost among them. 

We will maintain our process of analysing appraisals, developing proper training needs assessments with targeted training plans linked to performance outcomes, all aimed at decreasing leakage of training dollars and improving performance outcomes. 


We are committed to bolstering our Performance Management system (balanced scorecard) by clearly linking pay to performance.

We have a pilot programme where we are paying monthly incentives in place of the annual bonus for one division. We are working on a forced ranking system by which to easily identify better performers and employees in need of assistance or poor performers. The top 5% performers, middle 65% and the bottom 30% will be identified within each business unit. We have placed a vigorous emphasis on identifying future leaders, high potential employees and key human resources and in the segmentation of the workforce into these pools. This process would ensure that the right people are being rewarded and recognized for the value they add and trained and developed for a variety of organizational opportunities.

The poor performers, depending on the performance issue, will be provided with any necessary remedial training, employee assistance counselling, and performance improvement plans etc. and should these interventions over a specified period of time not result in improved performance will be subject to our progressive disciplinary policy, finding a right fit position or exit. These statistics will also inform our succession planning initiatives. 

We are also committed to selecting the right or valid performance measures that would track performance outcomes but we are careful not to be inflexible where innovation can be hindered. We focus more on outcomes as opposed to activities, hence allowing for empowerment, game-changing or disruptive advancement. Focusing on outcomes allows the employee to think about their role, the why and the how when making their contribution to the organisation. These measures and targets span both individual and team objectives. All objectives are cascaded from our overall strategy map which helps employees have a direct line of sight of how their results feed into the whole. Objectives should have stretch targets, be aligned across divisions and be clear and actionable. 

We encourage healthy dialogue and comprehensive documentation as they are key contributors to a robust performance management system. We are committed to training all users on the performance management system. Any rewards paid out for top performance will be well worth it, hence decreasing any bonus money leakage.


Under the rewards umbrella, we will not awarding our normal range of increases and bonuses this year. This message will be accompanied by a comprehensive communication plan. Our bonus pool is smaller than last year and hence there needs to be much stronger differentiation in compensation schemes among key employees. We are already working on the increased rigor of our performance management system. 

We plan to ensure all our employees understand all their benefits provided by the company as well as those benefits offered by National Insurance. They can maximise usage of all the benefits available to them. We are also reviewing the demographics of the employee population to re-affirm our mix of rewards.

We plan to have our CEO issue personalised letters of congratulations, company tokens to star performers in the absence of funds to purchase gifts. At the end of the day, a pat on the back, comment on the great job, a simple thank you and the careful use of positive feedback may also serve to provide intrinsic rewards. Specific, timely verbal approval may help energise individuals. A manager may be able to shape behaviour into successively closer approximations to the ideal thereby resulting in a stream of successful activities and ultimately a positive outcome. Praise is sometimes under-rated. 

All our employees across the hierarchy are forced to be innovative to do more with less. We will definitely reward such creativity where better and improved ways of doing things are developed. We plan to conduct internal conflict management training that will allow for healthy discourse, win-win solutions which may unearth innovative solutions. 


As people get laid off, the job market maybe softening in some industries and in certain staff categories, this may work in our favour when we are recruiting key talent. 

However, we have instituted a soft recruitment freeze where only our income generating positions or mission critical positions are being replaced as opposed to the support positions. This is a precautionary measure since there is so much uncertainty about the depth and duration of this financial crisis and retrenching employees is not an option for us. 

Should we source a star candidate for one of our hard to fill positions, we will recruit. The downside to this freeze is that employees maybe asked to do more work when there are no replacements, although we pay a flexible allowance this does not compensate for time away from family. The additional accountability, expanded roles and multiple roles may lead to work overload and work stress and this is certainly not a sustainable position.  We are monitoring these instances quite closely. 

We are also tapping into our retired workforce to lend some assistance on a contract basis as an alternative option to hiring a permanent employee during this time. 


Our relationship with our Employee Assistance Provider allows us great flexibility. We are thankful for their support thus far and we are continuing with this relationship into 2009. Our employees may be experiencing uncertainty about their jobs; spousal incomes are uncertain, increased cost of living and fear of the unknown.  We have a mobile human resource representative who visits all the locations to address any employee concerns with their relevant team leaders and or managers. 

We are committed to providing cost effective flexible work options where possible to improve the quality of the employees’ life. Examples include flexitime, telework and 9-80 options. These may serve to differentiate the employee experience and enhance our value proposition as an employer especially within an environment marked by highly congested traffic on the roadways. 

We are reviewing our claims loss ratio, our absenteeism rates and performance ratings to further inform our wellness initiatives that may not require significant funds to implement but provide ample gain.


Our culture, ethics and values will guide and direct the manner in which we will achieve all of the above. We must hold strong to our core values of integrity, growth, serving people and quality. We must be humble, honest, and fair and treat people with respect.

Core values are the behavioral bedrock of any society and or organization. It offers the basics that are so simple, enduring and the source of all accomplishment. We have developed some guiding principles under the banner of, uncompromising integrity, commitment to performance and a thirst for leading and driving change.  The guiding principles are designed to bring about greater clarity as to the kinds of behavior that we expect of every Guardian person and exemplify the true Guardian spirit. 

Denise Ali



  1. Kwame CharlesMarch 11, 2009

    Hi Denise, attended the forum that you presented this at. Your presentation was great, on the button – the best for the morning, as far as I am concerned. GHL is ahead of the game. Keep up the great work.

  2. Denise AliMarch 12, 2009

    Hey Kwame,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments.

  3. Georgina TerryMarch 16, 2009

    Hi Denise,

    This was a very refreshing article to read!! So many companies across the world, are running scared and making hasty decisions. So, it was great to see that GHL is being proactive, innovative and thoughtful, not only to it’s clients but also to it’s people.

    Companies really need to understand that their employees need to be nurtured, stretched, communicated to and valued in order for the company and the employees to prosper during these times.


    Georgina Terry

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