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Morale issues at shrinking VDOT


Story by Chris Graham
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It makes sense that there might be low morale in VDOT offices around the state. If you’re among the people in danger of being downsized, the reason for your low morale is pretty obvious. Not as obvious, but just as demoralizing, is seeing the person who has been sitting in the cubicle next to you pack up and leave, or picking up the phone to talk with somebody in another VDOT office on an issue and finding out that they’ve been let go.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has been in the political crosshairs for most of the last 10 years as Democrats and Republicans fight over what the state needs to do to address its myriad transportation challenges.

VDOT needs to get leaner and meaner, has been the hue and cry from the Republicans in Richmond. We’re past cutting fat, we’re into the muscle and bone, respond the Democrats.

Meanwhile, engineers and maintenance supervisors and front-line employees across the Commonwealth are bearing the brunt of things.

“Certainly it’s a challenge for all of us at VDOT right now. It’s been a tough couple of years for us with our financial challenges. I don’t know a better word for it, though that doesn’t necessarily cover the extent of it. The reorganization and layoffs really has taken a toll on folks. It has,” VDOT spokesman Jeff Caldwell told me recently.

The transportation department has gone from more than 10,000 employees toward a goal of having a staff of 7,500 by July 1, 2010. I asked Caldwell what VDOT might be doing to help employees through the transition in a formal way, for example, by offering counseling services. The inspiration on that question comes from a friend, Cynthia Long, who works in grief counseling, and has expanded her counseling options into areas that you might not traditionally associate with needing help with grief. Job loss is one of her specialties. I can imagine for her a sidebar session on dealing with organizational change.

Caldwell’s first response to my question on counseling was probably expected. “Do you mean career counseling?” he asked me. When I went into more detail on what I was looking for, he did indicate to me that there was a strategy in place for dealing with at least the uncertainty that mass job cuts can bring to an organization.

“It’s a challenge we’ve tried to overcome by providing every piece of information that we can to employees,” Caldwell said, laying out the approach from VDOT that focused on getting information directly to employees in the form of video conferencing and regular e-mail updates to keep employees abreast of the latest on the cuts.

The idea, it seems, was to try to prevent the rumor mill from getting cranked up to the point where there was as much bad information circulating around as there was good, if not there being a lot more of the bad than the good.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of challenges facing these folks that are impacting morale. Certainly the reorganization and layoffs are at the top of the list. But there’s struggles that we’ve had that we’ve tried to communicate with folks from a global perspective where employee raises have been delayed or removed ftom the state budget on several occasions,” Caldwell said. “We tried more than anything else to keep the lines of communication open. We’re trying to make sure that everybody knows exactly what’s going on.”

You ask me, and I think they could all stand for some of that grief counseling that I mentioned above.

“VDOT employees are very dedicated to what they do. The amount of energy that people put in, and the amount of years that people put in, is just amazing. This is a place where people still put in 30, 40, 50 years,’ Caldwell said. “So when they have to face these times where we’re really changing the shape of the organization, and where it impacts people that they’ve known for years or have sat right next to them, it’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about that.”

We could also stand for the Republicans and Democrats getting past their partisan differences and trying to actually get something done, too. That’d be a huge morale boost.

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