How to Communicate to Employees in Times of Crisis


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Failing to ensure employees are kept in the loop on key events can create unnecessary confusion and lead to lasting damage to company reputation.

Article 4 Minutes
How to Communicate to Employees in Times of Crisis

If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic should have taught the business world, it’s that crises can unexpectedly hit at any time. Without a plan in place, companies run the risk of losing vital time during an event that requires prompt, up-to-date communication with their workforce, stakeholders and others.

For many businesses, the coronavirus pandemic was a fairly manageable crisis compared to something like a stock market crash or a natural disaster. However, failure to communicate quickly and promptly left many employees unsure as to what was going to happen. Would they be working remotely? Was the business closing? Did staff need to be let go?

All this uncertainty creates stress and causes a million people per day to miss work in the US. While it’s too early to see the long-term effect COVID-19 has had on employee behaviors, some studies suggest it’s caused workplace absences due to stress to increase by almost 150%.

As a result, employers must understand not just what they’ll communicate to their staff in times of crisis, but also how they’ll do so. The larger the business, the greater the possible consequences of a lack of planning, so it’s crucial to be prepared.

The dangers of inadequate communication

One of the problems with crises is that the effects of them are often unknown at first. This means employee communication has to walk a tightrope between causing panic or holding on to crucial information for too long. The Harvard Business Review has found that organizations commonly swing too far in one direction or another.

If employees are warned about every potential crisis, there’s a real danger of building up alert fatigue. Being faced with a deluge of supposedly dangerous situations that don’t lead to anything can lead to staff ignoring and dismissing warnings. This is a problem in sectors from IT security to healthcare, and it’s something that can negatively impact a crisis communications plan.

On the other hand, sitting on information for too long means crises can unfold without action being taken, making them much worse. For example, Ticketmaster was recently revealed to have suffered a data breach, but didn’t act for nine weeks. This vastly increased the risk of its users experiencing fraud - leading to a $1.73 million (£1.25 million) fine - and a worse outcome than if the firm had reacted swiftly.

Good communication cuts down on uncertainty and allows employees to respond to a situation promptly, limiting the damage that can be done. It also allows you to shield them from the worst of the situation, and make sure they’re all safe.

Crisis management and internal comms

Internal comms are crucial in a crisis. You need to be able to communicate with everybody up and down the chain of command as quickly as possible. This takes two main forms: leadership talking to their employees, and conversations between leadership to determine the direction to take.

The latter needs to be quick and comprehensive. It’s important to have as much available information as possible before any announcement is made, as long as that doesn’t mean delaying things too long.

Even small details can have a big impact if missed out; former AOL CEO Tim Armstrong once gave an address about the company’s decision to get rid of a third of staff from its Patch news network. During this address, he noticed an employee taking photos of him and fired him on the spot, unaware that this was his job. This information would have greatly helped to avoid making a bad situation worse.

What should be in your crisis communications plan?

To determine what needs to be said to whom and how to say it, a crisis communications plan is a necessity. However, different crises require different responses, so a template is a good place to start. This can then be filled out for each scenario that’s likely to come up, from unexpected financial losses to natural disasters.

Each of these different crises will have some common elements that can’t be left out. First of all is the team: in the case of a crisis, who’ll be responsible for what? Laying this out ahead of time prevents confusion and lets the rest of the plan be implemented quickly and efficiently. You’ll also need to decide how everyone involved will be reached, and at what point.

Meanwhile, it can be a good idea to have a set of key messages prepared. Again, these will be simple templates to be edited when the time comes, but it’ll save a lot of valuable time if you have clear statements almost ready to go before a crisis ever happens. These could include a description of the crisis, the steps you and your employees will need to take, and a provisional timetable of events. Planning these things in advance can make reacting to a crisis - and informing your staff on the essentials that they need to know - that much easier.

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