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Managing a crisis in business

Chris Evans

Oil and gas companies are dominating the headlines with the dramatic oil price decline causing mass redundancies, slumps in share prices, project plans thrown out of the window and potential bankruptcies in some cases. Handling staff properly during such crisis situations is vital for all businesses, no matter what size or sector. Chris Evans report

Most people will have worked for a company that has gone through a difficult period, particularly during the darkest days of the financial crisis, and some might even have had to cope with a major scandal, such as an organisation being caught up in corruption. In such situations it can be easy for managers to lose focus, make rash decisions, cover up important developments for fear of upsetting staff further, or instinctively just wishing to jump ship. However, there are practical steps that can be taken involving a little forethought, planning, training, proper communication and vigilance, which can help keep the ship on course through troubled waters.

Have a plan of action

“First off, you’ve got to have a plan of action in place, even go through a rehearsal scenario with the board and staff members, if possible, so that you are better prepared at the time of crisis,” insists Steve Bustin, an internal communications expert. “Decide beforehand who’s taking responsibility to communicate and how. Is it going to be done via an internal chain of management? Intranet? Conference call? Email?.”

During the crisis itself, experts agree there are three key areas that need focusing on: transparency, technology and time. With regards to transparency, it is about having a clear communication strategy, regular briefings with those above and below you, and giving context to the staff. 

“All communications should not just have the headline, but an explanation about what the message means to the employees, what impact will decisions or changes have on their circumstances?,” says Steve Thompson-Martyn, managing director of Career Directed Solutions.

There can also be a tendency to over rely on the use of technology to communicate. Inevitably with the bigger organisations, using emails or conference calls to get an important message across to everyone might be the best option, but there is no substitute for face-to-face time with team members.

“These are crucial to give staff the chance to ask questions and voice their concerns directly, but also managers might find that employees further down the chain have some blinding ideas about how to turn the company’s fortunes around, or they might know where there’s a leak or have suggestions for the best way to communicate. In times of crisis, you need all the help you can get,” says Bustin.

Staff will often rally to the cause as long as managers are open and honest, explaining decisions and possible implications, whether good or bad, and how problems can be prevented. “If you just say you’ve got to work hard, this is not working, we’re about to go down the pan, they’re going to be heading to LinkedIn and updating their profiles,” adds Bustin.

Monitoring social media

Keeping a watchful eye of social media usage, both internal and external, is also vital. The last thing a company wants or needs during a crisis is for staff to be sharing important and potentially secretive information online through Facebook or Twitter. “A classic example of this was with HMV a few years back when information was being leaked by an intern and it became clear management didn’t have control over the corporate Twitter account,” states Bustin.

Simple counter measures to help resolve this problem include having someone keep an eye on key words on social media; get a google alert set up in the company name; use or to keep tabs on what people are talking about; and ensure all managers and executives have full access to the corporate Twitter feed, in case they need to shut it down or change things in a hurry.

At all times, managers have the daunting task of appeasing the market place, peers, subordinates and stakeholders. “In a crisis situation the stakeholders need vision, stability, consistency, and for the business to keep delivering. If successful on these fronts, this then gives confidence to the staff, who also need assurance that they are doing a good job in tough times. Peers need reassurance, value add, collegiate behaviour, and a coming together (all for one and one for all). While the market place needs clear messaging and honesty. All the while the business drum must keep beating and people perform their tasks as normal as possible,” says Thompson-Martyn.

It is also important to stress that internal communications must always come before external communications, insists Tinu Saide, a conciliation officer at Acas. “The last thing employees want is to hear about developments through the media, especially if their jobs are on the line.”

Training is key

Saide also believes training is key. Managers tend to cope a lot better if they’re well versed in how to handle emergency situations. External advice and support is also an option, particularly if it’s a complex situation involving TUPEs or mergers & acquisitions, but again managers must be careful not contravene company policy or executive strategy.

Managers can actually learn a lot from a crisis situation, about their own leadership skills and how to handle staff effectively. As long as they communicate in the right way, keep employees focused on their jobs, and allow them to engage in turning the company’s fortunes around, then once the crisis is over, their team is likely to be stronger for it.

Finally, it is important to review and learn from how the crisis unfolded and was handled. “Keeping a timeline during the events can really help with this (eg ‘had staff meeting at 10am’, ‘spoke to media at 11am’ etc). Managers could also use Storify to tell the story of what happened during the crisis (including dropping in images, videos, phone calls, use hashtags etc). You can then see how things could have been done better, recognise the efforts made by staff, and it will help plan for any future crisis,” concludes Bustin. 



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