Unfortunately, we continue to see CEOs and corporations disregard the importance of internal communications and culture. We're revisiting this content with a renewed perspective in light of recent events. (Originally published April 15, 2020.)
For far too long, internal communications have been relegated to the back burner, falling behind obvious drivers of growth like sales and marketing activities. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. With an increase in remote workforces, a record number of layoffs and furloughs, and an air of uncertainty around the long-term effects of the coronavirus on the economy, there’s never been a more important time to prioritize internal communications.
Communicating difficult news, especially when that news negatively impacts employees’ lives, must be approached with genuine empathy, honesty and humanity. Consider all facets of breaking the news, including the timing, method of communication and tone, which are just as important as the message itself.
Employees should be the first to know
When an organization faces a crisis, employees should always find out from leadership or a manager before they have a chance to hear about it from someone else. If layoffs are imminent, the last thing you want is for an employee to find out at the water cooler, or worse, in conversation with a customer. You owe it to your employees to communicate bad news openly, honestly and in a timely manner so they can get their information from the source.
Don’t delay your message and risk it getting distorted by the rumor mill. A communication void can spawn destructive narratives that can cause more reputational damage than the truth. Avoid confusion among employees and other stakeholders by proactively addressing rumors and misinformation before they take hold.
Internal communications may turn into external communications
Employees can easily forward a company email to their contacts or share a video of a CEO addressing employees at a town hall. In fact, employers should always anticipate that updates sent to employees will be forwarded to others outside the company, including media.
That’s why it’s important to draft any internal communications with a broader audience in mind. Internal communications should mirror external communications even under the best of circumstances. Messaging should always be consistent across audiences so you’re not telling your employees one thing and your customers another.
Review your internal messages through an objective lens, considering what someone outside the company might think of it and how it might affect your brand’s reputation. This doesn’t mean you should be less transparent with your employees because you don’t want certain information to be shared — just make sure your policies and communications reflect your company’s values.
Honesty is the best policy
No one wants to ruin another person’s day, but in many cases, the information you have to share may be important, valuable or even lifesaving. Sugarcoating the message or withholding important information could come back to haunt you later if employees feel you haven’t been completely truthful. Be honest, even when it hurts. Candor creates an atmosphere of trust, which is vital to any organization trying to lead its employees through tough times.
However, honest communication about bad news does not have to be devoid of hope. Communicators should work with leadership on messaging that strikes the right balance of resolve and a forward look to better times ahead.
“Don’t be afraid to speak from the heart.”
Offer structure and consistency
Hearing from higher-ups at different levels of the company helps employees feel connected and valued. Once a regular cadence of communication is established, people will start to expect it and look forward to it. If it stops suddenly, people might wonder what happened and be concerned that something is wrong. Regular communication can be reassuring, especially in uncertain times.
Managers may want to set up times to communicate with their direct reports at regular intervals, on the same day and time each week, while leadership may want to speak with everyone in their department or in the company once a month. If you need to cancel a scheduled check-in, try to reschedule or put out an update by email to show people that communication is still on your mind. Don’t suddenly go dark and stop communicating without some kind of explanation.
Often, corporate communication leans heavily on the “corporate.” But when people’s lives and livelihoods are impacted, buzzwords and brand messages can feel hollow and empty. Don’t be afraid to speak from the heart. Demonstrate gratitude for employees’ efforts and hard work. Show solidarity with the larger team. Illustrate how important culture and teams are during challenging times. Leaders can offer a glimpse into how their families are impacted with personal anecdotes or even pictures and video.
If you can, present bad news within the context of the big picture; don’t silo the message according to audience or try to drip it out slowly, leaving people to wonder. If you are asking employees to take pay cuts or make other sacrifices, address how this can help protect the long-term health of the organization. Give employees broader context and help everyone connect the dots by mapping out how the organization plans to stay on the path to success.
Prioritizing internal communications during a crisis can help preserve relationships and trust in your organization’s leadership. It also encourages companies to do right by their employees during what may be one of the most challenging periods of their lives.