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Communicating with Employees During a Crisis

Don't wait for disaster to strike before figuring out how to communicate with employees during a crisis.


After terrorist bombs ripped through a metro station and airport in Brussels in March, leaders at Cisco Systems were able to account for the company’s 150-plus employees in the area within 24 hours. Thankfully, all were safe. 

But five years earlier—and some 6,000 miles away—Cisco had faced another disaster that tested its communications efforts. When a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan in 2011, Cisco personnel struggled to reach 1,400 employees with timely information. Despite the technology company’s commitment to employee safety, it took more than a week for HR staff to locate all of its area employees and make sure they were safe.

Although the scale of affected employees in the two scenarios was markedly different, the faster response earlier this year reflects a dramatic transformation in the way Cisco’s leaders communicate with employees in a crisis. Following the devastation in Japan, the company implemented a sophisticated emergency notification system through which HR can draw on updated rosters of employees in affected areas and instantly contact workers through various modes of communication: work, home and mobile phones; work e-mail addresses; and texts. Employees can respond to any of the notifications to let the employer know if they’re safe or need support. The system helps HR quickly identify anyone who needs help.

In addition, Cisco’s leaders now have a plan in place for providing updates to employees using e-mails from HR staff and internal websites that instruct employees on what to do during emergencies, including natural disasters and disease outbreaks, and how they can contribute to relief efforts.

"We have a lot of different mechanisms to communicate," says Judy Botelho, Cisco’s director of employee relations. "Employee safety is always our top priority."

While natural disasters are among the most serious catastrophes that could befall a company, they are far from the only crises employers may have to weather. That’s particularly true these days, when viral customer complaints can spread at least as quickly as actual viruses. Whether it’s Chipotle's E coli outbreak, Volkswagen's emissions scandal or Starbucks' short-lived but highly criticized "Race Together" campaign, leaders can find themselves thrust into a crisis at any given moment.

[SHRM members only: SHRM Research: Crisis Management in Today's Business Environment: HR's Strategic Role]                                                                                        

While many companies naturally direct their energies outward during such situations, more HR professionals and executives are coming to realize that communicating quickly, often and well with internal stakeholders is equally important, if not more so. Indeed, in an age when every employee can serve as a de facto spokesperson, executing effective internal communications can help ensure worker safety, minimize damage to your brand, return your workforce to productivity and build trust among employees.

Employees Will Be Heard

"Employees are increasingly important voices during crises," says Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology in San Francisco. "Thanks to social media, what an employee says is heard by a lot of people."

Employees at Starbucks found themselves thrust into controversy in March 2015 after the company launched a marketing campaign aimed at getting its customers to talk about race by writing the slogan "Race Together" on its cups. The public backlash was fast and furious: Almost three-fifths of the 79,000 social media mentions of the campaign on its first day were negative. The overall sentiment was that Starbucks was oversimplifying a complex issue and exploiting racial tension for publicity.

But Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz did the right thing in following up with employees immediately, according to Paul A. Argenti, professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. He quickly wrote an all-staff memo thanking Starbucks employees for their work on the weeklong initiative and describing the other efforts the company was pursuing to address diversity and inequality. "Starbucks has been really good at dealing with crises internally, and Schultz is excellent at writing internally and using it externally," Argenti says.

Indeed, Schultz took a proactive approach by making that "internal" memo public—aligning his strategies for handling the crisis within and outside the company. "Internal communications should at least be concurrent with external communications," Holtz says.

A month later, Starbucks proved that it had successfully weathered the storm: The company’s stock hit an all-time high.

Thanks to social media, the public now has direct access to a trusted source of information: employees. And today’s media-savvy populace tends to put greater faith in what rank-and-file staff have to say than in what comes from corporate spokespeople, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer. "Inside information is always viewed as more reliable than third-party information," says Steven Fink, president and CEO at Lexicon Communications Corp. in Los Angeles.

HR and communications experts differ in their opinions about whether employees should be able to communicate externally on behalf of the company following a crisis or if only designated spokespeople should do so, but they agree that trying to block social media channels is simply not feasible. Instead of attempting to halt the flood of communication, HR would do better to offer employees accurate and timely information that they can disperse to their own online networks, experts say.

"Give them the information and the confidence to address it with their communities," Holtz says, especially if the crisis involves employees’ subject matter expertise. "Most organizations don’t take that approach, and I think that’s wrong," he adds.

"Employees are probably going to be the single biggest determinant in how fast and how well an organization recovers from a crisis, and they’ll be the first contact with customers as recovery occurs," says Paul Barton, principal consultant at Paul Barton Communications in Phoenix.

That means that failing to keep workers in the loop during emergencies can come at a high cost. "Employees recognize how an organization communicates a crisis," says Iloma Simmons, SHRM-CP, senior employee relations specialist at JLL, a professional services firm based in Chicago. How leaders handle these situations will dictate how much faith employees and business partners will have in them, she says.

Just as important as planning before disaster strikes is the flip side—assessing communications afterward.

Communicating is also important for ensuring continued productivity. If staff are unaware of their organization’s response, "people are spending more time talking about what’s happening than doing their jobs," says Jeanne Achille, president and CEO of The Devon Group in Red Bank, N.J.

A communications blackout is likely to affect how employees feel about returning to work as well. "Once a crisis is over, we need employees to come back in a positive, willing way to work," says Ivan Thompson, vice president for HR and CHRO at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Sidebar: 8 Tips for Communicating with Employees During a Crisis

​1. Be proactive. Anticipate and plan for crises that your organization could encounter before they happen.
​2. Get a team together. During the planning phase, identify employees who will make up the crisis management team—the people who will know what to do when disaster strikes.
3. Don’t expect employees to come to you. Implement a notification system that quickly reaches out to employees with accurate information and guidance.
​4. Don’t put up roadblocks. Trying to keep employees from communicating about crises via social media is futile. Instead, help them shape their messages by giving them correct information in a timely manner.
5. Act fast—but only say what you know to be true. Speed is of the essence when it comes to crisis communications, but it shouldn’t come at the price of accuracy.
​6. Don't go silent.  If your organization is not yet ready to respond to an emergency, HR should at least let staffers know that the organization is gathering information and will follow up as soon as it can. 
​7. Test—then test again. The most well-crafted communication plan won’t be very helpful if employees have no idea what it is or how to use it. At least once a year, test the process to find out from workers what it does and doesn’t do well, and then adjust accordingly.
8. Evaluate. Post-crisis assessments are as important as pre-crisis plans. After the fact, review how the internal communication plan was executed. Determine what succeeded and what can be improved.

Smooth Delivery

Even though different internal audiences may need different information, depending on how the crisis affects them and their ability to do their jobs, employers should keep messages consistent. Doing so makes it unlikely that employees will have different understandings of the situation or will feel like they’re not being treated the same as their colleagues. "Anyone who’s impacted by a crisis should receive the same information at the same time," Simmons says.

She made sure that happened at imaging company Canon, where she worked when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard in 2012. All communications directed at Canon employees on the East Coast—such as office closures, assistance hotlines and donation options—were also communicated to workers in the Midwest. "I made sure the information on the regional level was disseminated on the national level by working with senior management and putting that information in e-mails and weekly newsletters," she says.

It’s also best if all communication originates from the same source—preferably senior leaders—and if employees at all rungs on the corporate ladder are given the same message.

You need to communicate with everyone at once because you want everyone to think and act like owners," Argenti says. During crises, company leaders should ideally communicate with their staff face to face—which is what leaders at The New York Times did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Argenti says. When that’s not possible, a videoconference or audio message from the CEO can be an effective alternative. "After [Sept. 11], Goldman Sachs’ CEO used voice mail, and hearing his voice was comforting for employees," he says.

As tempting as it may be to go silent until you have a firm handle on the situation, don’t. It’s better to simply communicate what you do and don’t know. "Even if complete information is not available, at least communicate so that there’s not an information vacuum," Thompson says.

At the same time, don’t share anything you can’t verify. "Speed is of the essence, but it should be tempered by the need for accurate information," Thompson adds.

Work with company leaders to communicate with employees as quickly and efficiently as possible. "HR should know the best ways to get in touch with employees," Achille says. If the messaging comes from managers rather than directly from the CEO, help train those supervisors in crisis communications. "HR needs to make sure those managers know how to deliver a crisis message," she says.

Achille advises having a standby statement: "We’re looking at the situation, and we’ll be back in touch shortly," for example. "You want to at least acknowledge you have a sense of what’s going on," she says. "You set expectations that will quiet down the noise level among employees."

Plan and Review

When a crisis hits, don’t wait for employees to come to you for information. HR should immediately reach out. At Nashville-based design and architecture firm Gresham, Smith and Partners, employees used to be notified about emergencies via a recorded message when they called a specific phone number.

But during a test of the system, HR found that, among the 680 employees at the company’s headquarters, only a dozen actually checked the message over a two-week period. "It required multiple steps and left it in the hands of employees to get the message rather than being sent the message," says Johnetta Scales, HR training and development manager at the company.

The firm implemented a new system during the past year that pushes notifications out to affected employees via phone, e-mail and text. This year, the organization used the new system twice during severe snowstorms.

"We wanted to reach employees and let them know to stay off the roads and work from home, rather than having to wonder if the office is open, if anybody is there, if they should try to make it," Scales says. "We were really happy with that."

Like Cisco’s HR team, the HR staff at Gresham, Smith and Partners realized that one communication channel was not enough. The process needs to account for the reality that people have different preferred modes of communication.

"HR needs to be intimately connected with the best ways to get in touch with its employees," Achille says. "Not everyone is sitting in front of a computer all day long."

Of course, plans need to be in place long before a disaster hits. "We think of crises as acute, and that’s accurate. But it’s normal to have crises, so you should always be prepared for them," Achille says.

Planning should involve determining not only what and how to communicate to employees but also who will serve as the designated crisis management group. "HR should be embedded in that team," Thompson says.

Testing is an essential part of planning. HR departments should simulate crises to test communication procedures at least quarterly, Holtz recommends.

"It’s important to practice and drill and then evaluate those drills for continuous improvement," Barton says.

The planning phase should take into account any emergencies that might potentially affect an organization—even the most extreme. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, PetSmart’s employees asked the organization how they could donate money, blood and products to the relief efforts. "We didn’t know what to tell them," says Barton, who worked at PetSmart at the time. Following that event, the HR team changed its process so that the company can instantly provide employees with a comprehensive list of ways they can help.

Just as important as planning before disaster strikes is the flip side—assessing communications afterward. This can help the organization improve the system the next time around. "There should always be a postmortem," Achille says.

All internal crisis communication processes should support a dialogue that allows the business to communicate to employees and that lets HR hear from workers about their status and concerns.

"Good employee communication is two-way," Holtz says.

While no one can control when a natural disaster will hit—or when a product will malfunction, or when a vicious rumor will go viral—HR professionals can control how they communicate in the wake of these events. Doing so will help employees get the information they need as quickly as possible without jeopardizing their trust in the company over the long term. That’s at least one crisis averted.

Sidebar: Advice About What to Say

There are several ways that HR can deliver more effective crisis communications with employees:

​Have a boilerplate standby statement ready while you gather details.
Examples: “We’re looking at the situation, and we’ll be back in touch shortly” or “We realize this is upsetting, and we’ll follow up as soon as we have more information.” 
Talk about what you’re doing—not what you’re not doing. Example: “The company is providing temporary housing for all workers in the affected area who do not currently have access to their homes.”  
Look at the positive side.
Example: “Three of the employees who have been sent to the hospital have been treated and released, and the other two are expected to make a full recovery.” 
Don’t stop talking once the crisis ends.
Example: “Based on how the crisis affected you and your department and what you’re hearing from your community, how can we make communications better next time?” 
Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.
Illustration by Richard Mia for HR Magazine

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