Employees Need HR Communication in Crisis, Speaker Says

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

March 24 — Crisis communications evokes images of embattled chief executive officers with microphones shoved in their faces, but “when we focus only on these external stakeholders, we overlook one of the most important audiences in a crisis—our employees,” branding consultant Marianne Griebler said in a March 24 webinar.

“There's a huge opportunity for you, the HR department, to come to the rescue,” Griebler said. “You can tap into your employees' brand ambassador superpowers, and the benefits of doing this go beyond the crisis itself,” potentially improving employee engagement and retention, and even attracting new talent.

The HR team is itself a brand that “stands for a commitment to the success of your employees and the organization itself,” Griebler noted, adding that when HR's brand is strong, “employees know what you stand for” because of “clear and transparent messaging” and promises kept.

Griebler defined a crisis as “an internal or external event that threatens to damage the integrity of your organizational brand.” Crises may be structural, such as layoffs or acquisitions; personnel-related when a key, possibly “beloved,” figure leaves the organization; legal; or due to employee perceptions, she said.

Poor crisis management may “extend the time spent in crisis,” leave employees feeling discouraged and isolated, lead to potential damage to “your internal HR brand,” and affect employee retention, engagement and recruitment, Griebler said.

Crisis Best Practices

To prepare for crises, HR should draft social media policies that “empower your employees,” instead of looking like legal documents, with the goal of turning the employees into “brand ambassadors,” Griebler said. Such policies should be legally compliant but reader friendly and undergo regular updates. They should be introduced with “fun” in-person training.

Also important in preparing for crises, Griebler said, are the following steps:

  • supporting front-line managers;
  • making the HR web portal a trustworthy resource with up-to-date information that is available 24/7;
  • holding “cross-functional conversations” before a crisis hits; and
  • preparing a crisis-handling “template toolkit” for communication with employees, to be supplemented by personal outreach.

    When a crisis actually hits, “getting off the starting blocks fast is critical,” Griebler said. “Not having all the facts doesn't mean your organization should say nothing” to employees. HR needs to get its official story out on the web portal and through other channels before rumor can take hold. Employees need to understand the extent of the crisis; messages to employees should be “short and full of facts,” and the organization must stay true to its values, such as concern for customers and colleagues, she said.

    In a crisis, HR should also remind employees of “useful benefits,” support front-line managers and be visible, she said.

    After the immediate crisis passes, HR should continue to provide employees with updates and conduct a debriefing to cover “what went well, what did not go as well, what we can do differently next time.” Managers should be having similar conversations with their subordinates, but not formal surveys, Griebler said. “A strong brand asks for honest feedback and identifies ways to do better next time,” she said.

    The webinar was sponsored by San Jose, Calif.-based outplacement services company RiseSmart.

    To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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