3 Tips to Communicate Authentically in Times of Crisis
How one CEO approached communicating clearly, openly and quickly with employees to retain their trust amid a period of stress and uncertainty.
Times of crisis naturally lead to stress, and in the workplace, a surefire way to heighten that stress is lackluster communication.
Don’t get me wrong — my company struggles with this, too. In May, our leadership team decided that we wouldn’t return to in-person work yet, even though our state had lifted its stay-at-home order. But we didn’t communicate that to the team right away. Later, in a company wide virtual meeting, someone asked, "How are we determining when we’ll go back?" I could feel the sense of relief when I answered that question. I realized that this communication lag had been weighing on my team.
Only half of workers think their employers are honest and upfront with them, which is probably why one-quarter of workers don’t trust their employers. When people are kept in the dark, there’s so much room for assumptions, and they can lose trust in the organization because they think leadership is trying to hide something.
With the continued stress of the current health crisis, economic shifts and protests, as leaders, we should communicate with employees clearly, openly and quickly. Here’s how I addressed these issues with my team:
1. Remind your team of your policies
It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that company policies aren’t the first place that employees look for support. So it’s critical that your team fully understands your mental health policy and what resources they have at their disposal.
From the time the current health crisis hit, we’ve made sure our team is aware of our mental health policies. Through multiple formats, including a weekly company wide email and our 15Five reports, we’ve reminded employees to take care of their mental health and take time off to unplug and spend quality time with their families and friends.
We’ve also committed as a leadership team to encourage our working parents to take advantage of the flexibility our work environment provides — whether that means temporarily marking their Slack status as "OOO" to help a toddler work through a meltdown or blocking off time on their calendar to help their kids with homeschool projects.
Of course, we're not the only company that places a focus on mental health and well-being. For example, PwC offers employees six free therapy sessions, as well as free meditation apps. And in light of the current health crisis, the company is also offering well-being coaching sessions that give employees the opportunity to reach out to a professional wellness coach to talk about anything that might be causing stress.
2. Don’t shy away from difficult subjects
About 70 percent of brands are planning to decrease their marketing spend this year. We saw this trend firsthand in March, when a lot of our clients started asking to pause work, defer payments or end contracts. This was tough to hear, because these same clients were telling us we’d been doing great work, but they were getting directives to cut or pause marketing budgets. Within a couple of weeks, we went from being financially stable to not being able to cover all of our expenses. It became clear that I’d have to lay off a portion of our team.
Communicating this to the talented individuals who would be laid off was obviously the toughest part, but we also had to determine how to communicate this to those who’d be staying. While our head of HR and I met with the employees we were letting go, direct supports virtually met with groups of their remaining team members to let them know what was happening, that their jobs were safe and that I would be holding an all-team meeting to answer questions.
Trusting the team with tough information has helped us all work toward progress and even grow closer together. After the layoffs, many of our team members took on more responsibility to make up for the fact that we now have a leaner team and to help us get into a more financially stable position. And I was pleasantly surprised by the kind notes I received from employees who were still working with us and from some of the employees who were laid off. I did not expect that, and it brought me to tears.
3. Be vulnerable
Diving headfirst into those difficult conversations prepared me to address the team as the protests against police brutality began unfolding in May. I drafted an email sharing our company’s commitment to being actively anti-racist and provided the team with resources they could learn from and ways to take action in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In my email to the team, I had to admit that we’re not immune to racism, which was a vulnerable but necessary first step to making change. But when you’re sending this kind of communication, it’s important not to fixate on your own feelings. Instead, I focused on our company’s support of the movement and what actionable steps we’re collectively taking toward change.
Being open about our company values and letting the team know about our company’s efforts instilled trust among our team and motivated action. After sending this email, our team created a small group around the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion. As a group, we donated to causes that support the movement. And we’re currently reading books by Black voices and learning from them together.
Leading a business is tough work, and that only multiplies during times of crisis. A vital — and sometimes overlooked — part of that work is communicating with employees openly. I hope this advice helps you and your team members build a strong working relationship rooted in mutual trust.