Crisis brings your values to life

7 Mar 2019
Carrie Birmingham

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Newspapers and websites have white space to fill every day and a juicy business crisis makes a great front page.  These crises come in lots of different guises but in the eye of each storm are people.  This is so easy to forget.

From my desk, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my M.D. sprinting towards me with a look of panic on his face. He anxiously told me to get the 350 strong function together immediately. As people gathered around his desk, there was a sense of foreboding.  Following scandalous headlines of foul play, he announced the closure of one of our leading products.  Behind his head, we saw this news scroll onto the Sky ticker tape.  I knew there was no plan for this closure, what did we do next?

When faced with a crisis, the first instinct of a leadership team is to protect the business and hence their immediate concern is what the press or shareholders will think. Naturally this means getting advice from PR experts and legal teams.  But this also neglects thinking about the people involved, whether they are families, employees, shareholders or clients.  Thinking about people in a crisis is tricky since the answers are rarely obvious, tangible, easy or quick.

A crisis can highlight the truth

But if you invest some time, it will reap rewards. A crisis is a moment of truth, it is an opportunity.  Staff want swift decisions and clear communication from their leadership team.  But they also expect acknowledgement of the what it feels like.  I appreciate the “F” word in business is not popular. But any engagement research will tell you that the route to high performing staff is creating employee trust. Hence this is an opportunity to demonstrate the openness, transparency and honesty that we know constitutes this trust.

At the risk of mentioning the “F” word again, the crisis won’t feel like an opportunity. Any leadership team will be nervous under this spotlight, and many are learning as it unfolds.  It is tempting to focus on systems, operations and infrastructures because they feel tangible and manageable. But they are not the whole story.   HR teams will be heavily relied upon to “handle it” but they often find themselves faced with angry families and employees, with limited support. Many leaders don’t have the training to deal with this type of situation, and so get it wrong.  The decisions made in the immediate aftermath are the ones that set the overall tone so it is not an ideal training ground. If you only focus on what is reported externally, you are neglecting your staff.

Do you care more about your image or your people?

Companies are keen to have a positive corporate image and often use vision and values statements on their website to showcase what they are about.  But it is rarely the case that the same effort has been invested to ensure employees know how they should behave to deliver this vision and values.  Therefore the reputation is skin deep: what is being said may be different to what employees are doing each day.  Therefore a crisis is an opportunity to show your employees that you practice what you preach, and your vision and values statements is more than a bumper sticker.

But what does this actually mean in practice? For a corporate crisis, this can mean spending time with your sales team so they know how to answer their client’s questions. That can involve running training with actors to develop their ability to talk to clients authentically about the crisis. For employee suicides, this can mean a book of condolences being available to all staff so they have a way of expressing their grief, and connecting with the family. It can mean creating opportunities to talk openly about mental health and actively tackling the taboo associated with it.  When closing a product, it can mean creating events to mark the ending or giving gifts to honour the past. It can mean involving staff in alumni activities to enable the social bonds to continue.

Crisis HR is the art of leading staff through a crisis well. The cost of getting it wrong is often invisible but dangerous. A crisis is an opportunity for a leadership team to live their vision and values statements and hence increase employee engagement and discretionary effort.