Best Practices for Managing a Crisis Internally with Employees 

August 3, 2023

For any company, regardless of how big or small, the number one priority when facing an issue or crisis should be communicating in a timely and accurate manner with the company’s key stakeholders. However, the most important audience group is often overlooked: the employees. Especially during a crisis, employees can be both the strongest advocates and harshest critics.

Simply by being an employee, their voice is treated as an “insider” and an authority on company-related topics. They understand the innerworkings and culture of the company more than the outside world. They see the day-to-day strife and feel connected to and responsible for the company’s performance, broader societal impact and outside reputation. This also means that if they notice manufactured statements that don’t align with the company’s previously stated values or core purpose, it is only likely to lead to more questions than answers.

Communicating during a crisis must hit the following high-level points:

  • Be timely.
  • Be clear.
  • Be honest.
  • Be consistent.

These points are crucial when speaking to a group that understands the company at its core. The downfall of many companies that struggled with an internal issue has occurred due to unresolved internal issues where employees felt slighted, ignored or disappointed.

When a company is considering how best to approach employee communications during a crisis, it’s vital to consider the above four points, as well as the depth behind each one.

Be Timely

A quick response is important in any crisis, but especially when it’s impacting how employees are able to do their job. Unless leadership is able to get in front of the situation, they’re prone to receive a multitude of questions stemming from all over the workplace and across multiple channels of communication, which in turn enhances visibility on the issues. While timeliness is vital, companies don’t need to have all the answers immediately, but they do need to be responsive and acknowledge that an event out of the normal circumstances is occurring and they’re working to address it. Depending upon the situation (more quickly if operations are done via a cyber incident) this initial acknowledgment should go out as soon as the company has enough information to share the facts of the situation and address how the company is addressing the situation, ideally one that is authentic to the organization and demonstrates substantive change. This prompt response will demonstrate responsible leadership in tune with the issues and needs of employees and mitigate potential rumor mills circling internally.

Be Clear

It’s natural to feel that if it’s impossible to explain everything that’s occurring during a crisis to wonder if communicating anything at all is even worth it. The answer to that is always yes. Being clear and transparent with employees, even if that’s noting that the company and leadership can’t share more details at the moment. Ensure the communications are catered to your audience and they are concise and easily digestible, and that it is made clear that leadership sees and hears their concerns. Avoid skirting around the issue and acknowledge you are considering options or investigating the situation if you are unable to share more details. Employees appreciate candor and transparency from leadership.

Along those lines, ensure you are utilizing the most impactful platforms to communicate and engage with employees on issues and that you are creating opportunities to hear from them (e.g., internal town hall).  Depending on how the company traditionally communicates with its employees, whether it’s email, Zoom, Teams, an employee-only portal or on some other company owned channel, that’s what they should prioritize in a crisis or when an issue arises. Companies make the decision at times to communicate an issue using a platform that large swaths of employees are unfamiliar with but is convenient to the company or executives (e.g., an executive’s LinkedIn page, on the company website, a press release, among others) but by doing this without first getting the message directly to employees will often surprise them. This may lead employees to believe the company is more concerned about the external persona, rather than its actual business operations and culture. Also, it should be clear to all that whatever messages are being sent internally are likely to be made external through leaks, social media, news, and so on. Always, always assume that all internal messaging will eventually be made public.

Be Honest

Misrepresenting the story or telling half-truths to employees should never be a course of response. As previously mentioned, employees are the first to hold their company accountable and call them out for not upholding previous commitments. Companies can acknowledge they might be falling short at the moment but should reiterate they want to do more and will follow up with an action plan. Employees, similar to other stakeholder groups, are able to recognize when demands aren’t taken seriously and can see through thinly veiled messages. This is a stakeholder group that isn’t afraid to voice their concerns loudly or share their thoughts externally.

It’s also important to not overcommit in the rush of a crisis. While committing to a large goal may sound like the right thing to do when leadership is receiving an influx of pressure and questions, not living up to a goal committed to during a crisis will only come back to bite the company down the road. Reaffirming previous commitments and highlighting any progress towards those commitments should be a priority focus rather than overpromising and not being able to follow through. As a business, you must always consider what is feasible and what options would be the most impactful and appropriate coming from your organization, while also keeping in mind the external environment and other stakeholder expectations surrounding hot topics.

Be Consistent

Consistency, in the manner of messages being sent, noting when updates will come and who they come from, is how to build trust. Employees that watch their companies commit to communicating consistently and then fail in that vein are less likely to believe anything coming from the company or leadership in the future. Being consistent and showing action behind your words is the best way to build or rebuild trust with your employees.

Along with that, noting the company’s authentic brand persona (e.g., is it normal for the CEO to speak on issue?) will work to maintain and solidify the company’s reputation. In addition to being consistent with how messages are typically delivered, the organization should also be mindful of who is the best person to deliver messages and select the appropriate level to communicate on sensitive topics. Having the CEO comment on everything would dilute that person’s response to more pressing concerns, as well as amplify smaller sale issues. Consider creating a decision-making matrix to help determine appropriate staff to communicate on certain topics and ensure there is consistency there going forward.

Ultimately, throughout a crisis it’s important to view employees as stakeholders that will be a reliable voice for consumers and the public at large. As such, treating them by focusing on a timely, clear, honest and consistent message will set the precedent that a company is ready and willing to treat its most important stakeholders with the respect and care they deserve.

APCO alumna Lanesha Reagan co-authored this piece.

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