What do you tell your employees – your most important stakeholders – when a crisis hits?
Here's what you need to know about how to communicate a crisis to your employees:
- Crisis communication serves two purposes.
- Give employees accurate and timely information they can share.
- Since crisis communication needs to be updated quickly, the fewer people there are in the approval chain, the faster you can relay the message.
Your small business could face a crisis at any time. The problem could be a faulty product, service disruption, misconduct allegation, natural disaster, or some other crisis. These episodes often:
- Generate bad press
- Jeopardize your brand
- Erode employees, customers, and potential hires’ confidence in what you do
Handling press inquiries and customer complaints are hard enough. But what do you tell your employees – your most important stakeholders – when a crisis hits?
Employees usually are impacted by a crisis firsthand. Therefore, companies, especially SMBs, need a communication plan to address staff’s fears. Their concerns could include not feeling safe or supported, possibly losing their jobs, surviving the public notoriety, or whether to leave the company.
Crisis communication’s definition
A basic definition of “crisis communication” is the gathering, evaluating, and dispersing of information to address a high-alert event or situation that can negatively affect an organization’s well-being.
Crisis communication serves two purposes:
- Inform the public. The messaging is aimed at external audiences, including customers, suppliers, the public, and the media.
- Provide internal private information. The messaging is for internal audiences, including crisis team members and employees.
According to Pumble.com, employees are a special stakeholder category because they see both public and private messages.
Types of crises
Crafting a crisis communication plan has generic dos and don’ts. Still, you may need to tailor your strategy according to the type of crisis your business is facing.
Here are seven categories of general crises:
- Natural crises. Examples include but aren’t limited to events such as COVID-19 and other epidemics, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis.
- Technological crises. These include incidents such as industrial accidents, hardware and software malfunctions, and oil rig explosions.
- Confrontation crisis. Examples are blockades, boycotts, walk-outs, and protests.
- Crises of malevolence. Categories such as cyber terrorism, sabotage, product tampering, industrial espionage, and corporate terrorism belong in this category.
- Crises of organizational misdeeds. Examples include negligence, deception, and misconduct.
- Violence crises. These include workplace violence, discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment.
- Man-made disasters. Examples include massive financial crises, wars, and terrorist attacks.
The gravity and complexity of these crises can cause employees anxiety, fear, and confusion. Therefore, a communication crisis plan must be informational and address their emotional well-being.
Why employees matter
Knowing what you want for your employees is one thing; knowing what they want for themselves is another. According to research from The Conference Board, a source of data and insight for business leaders, one thing employees want involves responses from employers to the:
- Issues they’re passionate about
With cable news, the Internet, social media, and around-the-clock messaging, employees are likely getting their daily news from one or more of these sources. You don’t want them to hear about your company’s crisis for the first time from these sources.
A top employee complaint across surveys and studies is feeling “left in the dark,” “out of the loop,” and uninformed, especially about their organization. The penalty for employers is workers’ distrust.
The distrust factors
Employers know that distrust can set back any plans to boost employee engagement, retention, morale, and productivity. That’s why it is critical to communicate with workers:
The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that while distrust runs rampant across institutions, of the 36,000 respondents surveyed, 61% indicated that businesses were the most trusted of all categories.
You can tune out the media and other external sources’ incomplete, error-filled, and often over-hyped messages with truthful, reliable information targeted to employees’ needs.
Moreover, 77% of respondents admitted that they trusted their employer. With companies rating so high above the media and government agencies on the trust scale, their role in communicating with employees during a crisis is vital.
In short, you can tune out the media and other external sources’ incomplete, error-filled, and often over-hyped messages with truthful, reliable information targeted to employees’ needs.
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How employee communication fails
Planning an effective communication crisis plan for employees means you must know what tactics to avoid.
Communication experts recommend that you avoid:
- Relying on email. Although most people have access to email, many don’t regularly check their messages. In fact, an Adobe survey found that regularly checking email fell from 83% in 2017 to 76% in 2018.
- Using one communication channel. Employees likely prefer receiving information through one medium over another. Ask them which they prefer and use multiple channels to communicate.
- Having a multi-level approval process. Drafts of messages typically pass through multiple hands before the final approval. But since a crisis needs updating quickly, the fewer people there are in the approval chain, the faster you can relay the message.
- Drafting a complicated message. Employees want information they can read quickly and easily understand.
- Ignoring workers’ feedback. Employers should ask for and welcome employees’ feedback, which helps build trust and camaraderie.
- Having an “ivory tower” plan. Encourage face-to-face communication between management and staff. Make sure messages are passed through all levels of your company.
- Relaying the message just once. Repeat the information as often as necessary. People are more likely to remember what they’ve heard or read multiple times.
Drafting the plan
Here’s how to create a detailed but practical crisis communication plan for your employees:
Be prepared. Think about possible disasters your company and employees could face and draft a plan before a crisis occurs.
Assemble a team. In the planning stage, identify members of your crisis communication team. Team members should include:
- A communication specialist
- An HR professional
- Others who can oversee the plan
Disperse information quickly. But don’t communicate until the message is true and accurate.
Test the plan. Once a year, test the program to see if it works for employees and adjust or change it as necessary.
Assess the plan. Evaluate the procedure before and after the crisis to decide what went well and what needs improvement.
According to The Conference Board report, workers want assurance that their leaders are caring, competent, decisive, and that their actions will create stability.
Repeat the information as often as necessary. People are more likely to remember what they’ve heard or read multiple times.
Actions leaders can take
The board recommends CEOs and C-suite leaders can take the following actions when managing a crisis communication plan for employees:
- Be open, trustworthy, truthful, and accountable. Treat employees as adults and be direct. Even when relaying bad news.
- Communicate with compassion and empathy. Leaders will see and need to prepare for a range of emotions from employees during a crisis. Also, create a feeling of togetherness.
- Be committed to employees’ well-being. Communicate regularly with employees and make available resources, counseling, self-help, tools, and information to make them feel safe and supported. How you respond to employees in critical times will shape their view of your brand and company as a place they want to work.
- Be available to employees. Make sure they don’t feel isolated or overlooked. Keep focused on employee engagement, especially during a crisis, or risk derailing your retention and productivity goals.
- Recognize HR’s role and function in crisis communication.HR is responsible for ensuring employees are heard and feel safe and assured. Create an FAQ sheet for answering common questions from employees
- Engage in two-way communication. Communication between leaders and employees should be a two-way channel. Seek employees’ input, listen to their concerns, hold discussion forums, and address any other issues in real-time.
- Create interactive channels for employees. Set up these channels so employees can communicate and share information, personal experiences, challenges, and needs.
- Recognize a crisis’ long-term effects. CEOs should take the lead in communicating progress, change, or a return to normal.
- Look beyond the crisis. Ask leaders, both internal and external, how the crisis affected them, what the community is saying, and how to improve the crisis communication plan in the future.
Don’t wait or expect employees to approach you during a crisis. Reach out to them quickly with truthful, accurate information and advice.
Also, don’t put up barriers that keep employees from discussing the crisis on social media platforms. Instead, give them accurate and timely information to share.
Handling a crisis – let alone communicating it to employees – is a complex, delicate task. But employees are more likely to appreciate carefully drafted, truthful, timely, and transparent messages.