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10 tips for communicating with employees during a crisis

Communicating with employees during a crisis is critical — when it’s done with urgency, transparency, and empathy, employees are reassured.
Published 23 Jun 2022
13 min read
the word 'crisis' typed out on a typewriter

The focus on crisis management is more salient than ever now, thanks to the global pandemic which brought about massive disruption.

Amidst the upheaval and unpredictable circumstances, business leaders recognise that in times of a global crisis, organisational resilience is critical not just to succeed, but to survive. And effective communication plays a huge role in breaking down silos and building that much-needed organisational resilience.

According to PWC’s Global Crisis Survey 2021, 95% of business leaders report that their crisis management capabilities need improvement, as they review their strategies taken during the pandemic. But now that the pandemic has become endemic, the worst isn’t over yet.

A global recession is looming overhead whilst companies are still struggling with the effects of Covid-19, alongside rising inflation, the cost of living crisis from Australia to New Zealand and the UK. As if that isn’t bad enough, we have crypto crashes added to the mix too.

Every leader knows that communicating with employees during a crisis is critical — when it’s done with urgency, transparency, and empathy, employees are reassured. It motivates them to stay loyal to the company, adjust and adapt to the constantly changing conditions that a crisis brings, and trust in their leaders to do what’s right for everyone.

Companies all around the world are now feeling the effects of macroeconomic factors, which is no doubt generating stress and anxiety amongst both employers and employees. As a business leader, you’ll want to limit the disruptive nature of current affairs by keeping your employees informed, engaged and aligned through good communication.

Here are some tips to help you do so.

What is crisis communication?

Crisis communication refers to the dissemination of information by an organisation to address a negative situation that impacts either one or a combination of the following:

  • The organisation’s employees
  • The organisation’s reputation
  • The organisation’s customers
  • The organisation’s stakeholders

Messages used in crisis communication are meant to provide employees with the knowledge needed to make the right decisions in such situations — to address concerns, reassure team members and ensure open communication internally.

While crisis communication is usually reactive, it’s beneficial for organisations to have a crisis communication plan in place. This is so that when the need arises, team members don’t panic due to the urgency but have a fixed procedure to follow, which makes things easier and smoother for everyone.

Why is effective communication important for crisis management?

Man holding a business newspaper

Effective crisis management cannot occur without quality communication.

Your organisation’s messaging can be the difference between surviving the crisis or going under. Being able to communicate quickly and effectively during and after a crisis will determine the outcome of the situation, and the impact on your company and brand.

Clear and consistent communication is crucial to maintain business continuity and help the business successfully recover. It helps to provide clarity and direction for employees, customers and stakeholders, by inspiring confidence and earning everyone’s trust.

When a crisis occurs, higher management tends to focus communication efforts on external audiences such as customers and journalists, because protecting the company’s reputation is important in public relations. It’s understandable, of course, leaders are concerned about investors, customers, and also their competitors who will swoop in to take advantage of the situation.

However, when leaders overlook the importance of effective internal communication with employees, it not only leaves them confused and worried, it might also lead employees to turn to other sources of which might be unreliable or inaccurate. That may lead to false assumptions, which would not bode well for employee confidence in your company.

Without a robust communication plan in place, crises can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, assumptions, rumours, and worries swirling around the workplace. Employees don’t understand what the situation is, they all have different understandings, they are unsure who they can turn to with questions, and they have no idea how they can help. This will likely cause employees to start sharing and discussing what they know so far — which is how rumours start to spread across the organisation internally and externally.

Your employees want to know the facts and the truth during a crisis — if that information is not given, they will find other ways to obtain a clearer understanding, especially since it’s tied to their livelihoods. Public opinion also tends to listen to employees more than CEOs during a corporate crisis, because the suspicion is always there — is that the truth or are they sugarcoating the situation?

Rather than listening to well-prepared statements which have been meticulously crafted and edited before getting approved by higher management, the public prefers to form their opinions based on insider information coming from the source itself — employees who know the company best. With word-of-mouth spreading at such an incredibly fast pace through social media, you certainly don’t want employees spreading misinformation and panic inside and outside the company.

“Employee communications are at the heart of every company’s success. Most certainly, they stay at the heart of any crisis recovery. Internal communication is the little strand that holds everybody together when everything else seems to be falling apart.” — Paul Barton

With the Great Resignation well underway and generating more flight risk employees than ever, your workforce is on the move. You don’t want to be losing your best talent during a crisis because of poor communication, and make them feel even more left out, insecure about job security, or dejected about the negativity surrounding current conditions than they already are. Especially when it will lead to higher turnover rates and costs as well as lost productivity.

Types of crises faced by businesses

Apart from the global crisis we’re all familiar with (*cough* the coronavirus), a business crisis can manifest in different forms. This is why a crisis communication plan is vital, so your business is prepared to handle a variety of situations, tailored to address each type of crisis.

  • Financial crisis: bankruptcy, store closures
  • Personnel crisis: individual(s) involved in unethical or illegal misconduct
  • Organisational crisis: situations where the company has significantly wronged its consumers or employees, such as withholding information, exploiting customers, or misusing managerial powers
  • Technological crisis: platform crashes, server breaks
  • Natural crisis: natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, wildfires
  • Confrontation crisis: boycotts, protests, internal fights
  • Workplace violence crisis: occurs when a current or former employee commits violence against other employees
  • Crisis of malevolence: occurs with the objective of harming an organisation, stakeholders and its public image through cybersecurity threats, hacking, kidnapping, spreading of false rumours, and product sabotage

Organisations that regularly experience crises like the aforementioned would undeniably be tackling high turnover as well — which makes crisis communication even more important, to enhance employee engagement and retain valuable employees.

How should leaders communicate with employees during a crisis?

Now that you’ve got a clear overview of possible crisis scenarios, it’s important to assess the probability of those that are most relevant to your business, and examine how you can communicate effectively with your employees in those situations.

That way, you’ll be prepared and equipped to deal with emergencies, and can better manage your organisation’s response to keep your business reputation, revenue and customer experience intact.

1. Be timely and transparent

When a crisis occurs, there’s no time to waste. Transparency is key when communicating with employees during a crisis — the situation needs to be addressed immediately. Your employees will be keen to find out the entire truth, so there’s no use for sugar coating or hiding some aspects of the situation.

The truth will always come to light, so if you don’t ensure full transparency right away, things are going to get worse when additional information, which has been deliberately covered up, finally gets exposed.

Trust your employees and explain the entire situation to them — because they deserve to hear it. Be clear and concise about how the crisis started, what exactly caused it, how it may affect their current roles, and what the organisation’s response is moving forward.

Keep in mind that when a crisis arises, you need to act fast to ensure business operations continue per usual as much as possible. Don’t hesitate in communicating with employees during a crisis, or else your employees will start making assumptions, which will lead to groundless rumours being spread that may harm your business reputation.

Ensure that you nip it in the bud, by providing reliable information communicated internally, so your employees are on the same page, reinforcing their trust.

2. Keep lines of internal communications open

Always make sure that your employees know they can come to you with any questions or concerns. Regardless of whether your workforce is working remotely or in the office, facilitate open communication by ensuring that there are channels of communication in place. This is to ensure your employees don’t feel that the crisis communication is one-sided from the top-down.

Any questions or concerns can be promptly addressed through Town Hall meetings, chat channels, emails, Q&A platforms, and more. Having an open-door policy allows you to be more accessible and interactive with your team — which strengthens loyalty, commitment and confidence.

3. Keep employees updated regularly

Crisis communication shouldn’t be a one-and-done thing, especially when it comes to employee communication. Your employees are your organisation’s biggest asset, so they should be at the forefront of your organisation’s crisis management. Keeping your staff informed with accurate and relevant information is more important than attending to external stakeholders.

Regular updates should also be given to ensure employees have a full understanding of what’s going on and how the crisis is being handled. Your messaging should have a balanced tone to ensure that they stay informed, while not inciting unnecessary panic.

A great way to ensure frequent communication is to direct employees to a specific internal page where updates are regularly posted, send out company-wide emails addressing the crisis, or start a crisis channel using communication tools such as Slack. Maintaining a constant cadence is key, and you’ll find that your employees greatly appreciate and benefit from having full transparency over the crisis.

4. Encourage feedback

Getting honest employee feedback is important, especially in unpredictable times of a crisis.

Providing employees with a fuss-free and easy-to-use feedback platform helps you ascertain the sentiment on the ground, and gain a better understanding on how your teams are coping with the situation. It also facilitates open, two-way communication.

The best part about having it all done and stored digitally is that it’s great for companies with global teams working remotely too — employees will feel included, valued, and recognised regardless of geographical barriers during a crisis.

Employment Hero's feedback feature
Employment Hero’s feedback feature

5. Provide psychological support

In the midst of everything going on, it’s also imperative to prioritise communications that support employees. Many employees may be quietly struggling with their mental wellbeing during these turbulent times, and are unable to remain productive when they are constantly worried and anxious about the organisation’s status and their job security. They may be experiencing frustrations or difficulties with the current crisis, and need a safe space where they can confide their concerns and worries.

For employees who require more assistance dealing with these challenges, communicating the options and solutions available will significantly reduce their stress. Take a proactive approach in initiating communication and let them know that they are fully supported.

From employee assistance programs to flexible work arrangements, provide clear details on the actions they can take to reduce anxiety and a clear direction for them moving forward.

6. Thank your employees

Recognising the hard work and perseverance of your employees through a crisis has never been more important. Acknowledging your team will boost employee engagement and keep them motivated to stay productive despite trying times.

Utilising a HR software that allows peer-to-peer recognition with company-wide visibility definitely helps to boost employee morale, enhance camaraderie between staff, and minimise crisis impacts.

Employment Hero's Shout Out feature
Employment Hero’s Shout Out feature

7. Be positive

In times of an organisational crisis where everyone is constantly bombarded with bad news, leaders need to lead by example in finding positive aspects at work and highlighting them.

How leaders communicate can make or break employee commitment to the organisation, so it’s important to keep employee morale up by focusing on the positive side of things. Shift the attention away from uncertainty and fear to focusing on employee engagement and productivity. There are always positives if we look for them, and it becomes contagious.

Even something small like sharing a funny joke or a hilarious meme with each other can go a long way in brightening an employee’s day. Share helpful resources that remind people to practise self-care, maintain a positive attitude at work, and encourage employees to help each other. Everyone sinks or swims together — it takes team effort to ride through a crisis.

8. Check in with them consistently

If having 1:1s isn’t a regular occurrence in your organisation yet, it’s definitely time to start incorporating them. Running effective 1:1s are key to a company’s internal communication, and there’s never been a more important time than a crisis to support your team.

Ensuring that managers are checking in with their direct reports throughout an organisational crisis allows them to gain a better understanding of how they are currently feeling, and how you can better support them. Employees need to feel that their one-on-one meetings are a safe space where they can be listened to and heard, give feedback, and talk through any of their concerns and challenges privately.

Many employees struggle to remain productive while navigating through uncertainty, and 1:1s help provide an outlet for them to communicate their innermost thoughts honestly.

9. Provide a plan for the future

Communicating with employees to ensure full transparency is great, but what employees want and need to know is the next step forward. It might be difficult to provide a plan for the year ahead, but at least provide an overview of the organisation’s path for the next 3 to 6 months.

Are there any shifts in key priorities for the organisation? Are there any branches of the organisation that will go through cost-cutting efforts of which employees need to be aware?

Employees need to know that leaders have thought about the future, analysed the current situation, and determined the next steps. Emphasis should be placed on what is currently going well for the organisation, and what needs to be improved on — so that employees are clear about where the organisation is going to be investing its efforts in, to mitigate future blowbacks from unexpected crises.

Your staff wants to know that their future is being considered, and that the organisation is doing its best to ensure that it is secure. How leaders communicate with employees during a crisis determines how they feel about the company and its leadership, and whether they will want to continue aligning themselves with the company or find another organisation that aligns better with their values.

Message templates to employees during a crisis

Here are some message templates you can refer to for guidance in communicating with employees, when faced with a crisis situation.

Example: When faced with budget restructuring 

Your business is forced to restructure the budget due to the loss of a major client, and actions need to be taken in reducing employee pay to cover immediate short-term costs.

Message:

“Dear all, due to an unforeseen loss of a major client, we have unfortunately made the difficult decision to reduce employee hours across the board by one day a week. This temporary furlough is essential to avoid major layoffs, and we ask for your kind understanding in these difficult times.

The reduction in work hours is estimated to last 3 months, and leadership takes full responsibility for the lack of foresight with regards to a major client. Please do not hesitate to reach out to your managers should you have any pressing concerns, or submit your questions via our <insert internal communication channel>.

We are currently working on a strategy plan to tide us over the next few months and will share more updates once it is ready. Rest assured that we are committed in ensuring that every individual stays employed with the organisation. This is not a situation we want to be in ever again, and will implement additional initiatives to ensure more resilient client acquisition in the future.”

Example: When faced with a personnel crisis

Your company’s chief executive officer is recorded saying racist, controversial statements in a meeting, and that audio clip has gone viral on social media. Now your brand’s reputation is at stake, because your loyal customers are disappointed whilst the public is bent on boycotting your brand.

Message:

“Dear all, we sincerely apologise for the discriminatory words of our board member. Their statements do not reflect our company values at all, and they will be met with strict disciplinary action. We do not tolerate racial discrimination of any kind here at <insert company name>, and we constantly strive to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive workplace.

We want all our employees to bring their best selves to work and be comfortable enough to be themselves at all times. Please do not take our board member’s words to heart, and be rest assured that his individual opinions are not aligned with the rest of us. If you have any individual concerns you would like to raise, please do not hesitate to reach out via <insert company’s internal communication channel>, we are always here to help whenever needed. Thank you for your understanding.”

Employee satisfaction could make or break employee commitment to your business

Good internal communications don’t just help manage a crisis. They are the management of a crisis, and determine whether your organisation will sink or swim. Wise leaders will make employees a priority — because they are the core of your business operations.

Employees who don’t feel recognised or engaged are less loyal to an organisation, which makes them more likely to leave easily when the business is hit with a crisis. Reward and recognition is critical in making them feel appreciated and engaged with the company, so they align their loyalty with the company in spite of crises.

Maintaining your employee’s wellness is also key, so it’s important to find out where you stand with your employees currently. Utilise employee wellness survey questions to gain better insights, or use Employment Hero’s Happiness Survey to automate the process! It’s absolutely fuss-free for both you and your employees.

Get accurate employee happiness insights with our anonymous happiness survey
Get accurate employee happiness insights with our anonymous happiness survey

Keen to find out more on how you can enhance your employee’s well-being at work? Download our 2021 Wellness at Work report today.

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