Recovering and rebuilding after a disaster: Part 3 – Effective employee communication in times of crisis

This article is part of a series of seven articles to help businesses recover and rebuild after a disaster. Other documents in this series:

When disaster strikes, business owners often focus initially on communicating externally by contacting customers, suppliers, creditors and partners. And that is very important.

But in the midst of the panic and confusion that often follow a disaster affecting your business, don’t forget to reach “in” to your employees. Regardless of your company’s size, the best strategy is to be prepared and have a clear process for internal communication in place before disaster hits your business.

Keep in mind that employees whose livelihoods depend on your company will feel particularly vulnerable when that business is damaged or, in the worst case scenario, closed completely for any length of time. As everyone attempts to figure out what to do next, rumors can arise causing even more emotional distress and pressure. This is the time you need to reinforce trust, candor and morale among your team. Communicating frequently and clearly about what is going on with the business is the best way to do that.

Having a post-event communications plan in place is the best way to ensure you are prepared for any eventuality. You need to decide who is going to communicate on behalf of the company to both external and internal audiences. This “one voice” policy will ensure that messages are consistent. Employees, customers, suppliers, partners and the media need to know that one person will have the latest and most accurate information, and they need to be able to reach that individual at any time.

Communication to both audiences should be more frequent than usual during this delicate time, but communication of relocations, changes in hours, closures and other adjustments should always be provided to employees first. You do not want them to hear news about your business in the media; they need to hear it from you. Be patient with questions, even if they seem inconsequential and too numerous to you at the time.

Without fail, be honest with your employees about everything. If the news is bad, deliver it quickly and clearly and make yourself available to help employees deal with the ramifications. Let employees know what the company will need to do to survive the crisis. If closure is inevitable, explain clearly why. Be prepared to answer questions about outplacement and severance packages as well as to handle the emotions that may accompany such news. If the company is responsible for any harm that befalls employees or their family, communicate your regret and empathy first. Then be prepared to discuss the steps you are taking to address the situation when the employee is ready.

Whenever possible, use face-to-face communication, but if that is not possible, use the method with which your various audiences are most familiar. If your employees are accustomed to phone, email or text messages, rely on those during crisis times as well. Make communications with creditors, suppliers, customers, employees and the community as personal as time and resources permit. Although not the most personal medium for communication, Facebook has recently proven to be extremely effective in communicating with large audiences in an extremely timely manner.

Be sure to give employees more than ample opportunity to offer feedback, assistance and suggestions during a post-disaster period. When it feels as if everything else is out of their control, the ability to be involved in recovery and to offer personal and professional help is vitally important.

There are other advantages to providing opportunities for employees to give feedback. If offers an opportunity for management to ensure that messages have reached employees, and to hear how employees are feeling, how they are recovering and what opinions and attitudes they hold about the company’s recovery. In addition, feedback from employees provides critical information that management may not have from any other source about the community’s recovery and plans to mitigate future disasters.

When a crisis hits your business, you need to use every listening post you can to keep up on what your community and region are doing, what your customers are doing and saying and what your employees need to recover and remain engaged with your rebuilding activities.

If your company does not have a crisis communication plan, develop one. If necessary, engage the services of a communications consultant. It will be money well-spent when disaster strikes.

A disaster can present opportunities to re-evaluate the company and re-energize your employees in new directions. Such instances can provide you the time and conditions you need to make changes that you have been postponing. Having a solid crisis communication plan in place will ensure that you can capitalize on those opportunities and waste no time in getting back to business.