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Communicating effectively to employees in tough times

01 Jun, 2020 Change communication, Internal communication, Issues and crises

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

It is even more important to communicate well with employees when an organization is under financial pressure. The COVID-19 crisis has caused employees everywhere to be concerned about the security of their jobs. Employees worry about their retirement funds and even about the future of their organization. In their preoccupation with the problems they are prone to circulate rumors and lose productivity by speculating about the impact of the pandemic on them.

So what can be done?

Here’s some advice to keep in mind when confronting the issues created by tough times:

Show leadership

Leadership is about communication and therefore it is vital to be candid with employees about what is known and also what is uncertain. Management should explain to staff about the organization’s response strategy to financial turmoil because staff want to see their leaders showing the way.

Build on strengths

Emphasize the values of employees that have enabled the organization to achieve its current position. Find some past stories about how the organization successfully coped with past economic pressures and tell how teamwork enabled the organization to ride through its problems and can be done again.

Be visible

Your organization’s leaders should make a point of ‘showing the flag’ – of making the effort to circulate around offices and work areas. In large firms they should visit other locations to show their visible presence and engage with workers. They should brief employees about the current position and prudent plans for the future. The problems created by the crisis should be discussed directly and employees should be encouraged to ask questions. If possible, employees should be asked for their views about how costs can be managed tightly in these times. When included in the process, employees show they can respond with thoughtful suggestions.

Communicate information early

Ensure you are even more open about organizational performance results than usual. Avoid being seen to hide or delay information that is better circulated.

Confront rumors early

PR staff should establish (if they haven’t already) a network of employees in a cross-section of work areas who are well informed. Those people should be asked to report the rumors and speculation that fly around during uncertain times. Look externally as well – monitor the press and social media for relevant industry rumors and specific rumors about your organization. Then get managers to address the rumors directly and quickly. However, don’t over-react to rumors – be aware of them and decide which ones need a response.

Use the management team

Use the management team to cascade core messages about the organization’s strategy for dealing with tough times and to repeat variations of the core messages in order to reinforce them. Use the various channels of communication to reinforce these messages as well, not just motherhood statements, but genuine information updates.

Align messages

During difficult times it is important to align internal and external messages. Particular care should be taken to do this because employees may have multiple roles as customers and shareholders. And employees should hear important news first because they are the most important stakeholder group for any organization. (In a public company, the key messages need to go simultaneously to employees and the stock exchange.)

Be helpful

Many employees and their families may be experiencing personal pain from the fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. Acknowledge their pain and ensure they know about available counseling resources such as an employee assistance plan.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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