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How to Communicate with Employees When a Crisis Hits

Leadership in the eye of the storm.

From Sept. 11 to Hurricane Katrina to the SARS epidemic, all of these crises had an impact on businesses—and their employees. Author Bill Tibbo knows this firsthand because he has advised companies on four continents on how to repair and rebuild after a devastating event.

In his new book Leadership in the Eye of the Storm: Putting Your People First in a Crisis (Rotman-University of Toronto Press, 2016), Tibbo, president and CEO of Bill Tibbo & Associates in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada, offers a practical guide to help business professionals—including HR—navigate crises by focusing first on the needs of their employees and their families and then on the needs of the organization.

"A people-focused approach to crisis management not only ensures that the recovery process goes well, but can lead to greater solidarity and community, including increased loyalty, improved morale and a strong, cohesive team," he writes.

The book, which aims to help leaders identify and cultivate the skills and behaviors required not only to meet the challenges that arise in times of chaos but also to build a better future from them, covers topics such as:

  • How to develop a people-focused crisis response plan.
  • How to make tough decisions in a crisis.
  • How to carefully manage employees' return to work.
  • How to conduct a formal review.

Tibbo recommends using the following techniques to meet the needs of employees during a crisis:

Allocate your people by talent, not job description. In a crisis, leaders need to embrace the counterintuitive thinking that new clusters of talent can create solutions that were not evident before. In addition, nonhomogenous teams generate creativity because members bring different perspectives and approaches.

Deal with simple problems to solve complex issues. The complexity of issues that arise in a crisis is a huge challenge. When a situation seems too large, too multifaceted and too intricate, we feel as if there is no way we can ever tackle it. But you just have to start. Think of a complex situation as a collection of simple problems. Begin by addressing the most basic needs and then break all the large issues into smaller chunks. Listen to employees to get a sense of what is happening in various areas.

Be open to learning and new ways of thinking. Once a crisis strikes, it is leaders' ability to unlearn what they have previously learned that leads to success. Move through the steps of learning, unlearning and relearning again and again to ensure growth and avoid failure.

Keep track of people's emotional means. Monitoring and tracking emotional resources is hard, but you have to know how resilient your people are. Leaders who pay heed to this idea are less likely to set unrealistic expectations because they engage in slow but long-lasting recovery to ensure success for the company and for workers.

Send in additional troops. One of the most effective ways of managing a crisis is for an organization to send help in the form of what Tibbo calls "temporary teams" because they are present only for as long as is needed. For example, putting senior managers in a position to "roll up their sleeves" and stand elbow to elbow with front-line workers is an incredibly powerful bonding experience.

Support your managers. When creating your response teams, remember to take care of managers by supporting their efforts and meeting their needs. Involve them as much as you can in decisions about resource allocation, establishing priorities and mapping out directions for the recovery effort.

Read more about what employers should do to communicate with employees during a crisis in the November 2016 issue of HR Magazine.

Desda Moss is managing editor of HR Magazine.

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