Predicted Swine Flu Outbreaks Will Test Crisis Plans

Mexico Swine Flu This summer, while most companies are struggling to stay afloat due to recession woes, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is quietly preparing for what could be the final straw for many small and medium businesses – a severe swine flu outbreak.

And this time around, employee communicators will have to deal with much bigger problems than finding a tactful way to explain that the workplace isn’t a daycare center for kids whose schools have closed due to the flu.

According to several news sources, the CDC is predicting that up to 40% of the U.S. population will become infected with swine flu this fall.  That’s right, up to 40%.

A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that three out of five Americans believe that a there will be a widespread swine flu outbreak this fall, and 90% would be willing to avoid shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation, etc., for an extended period of time — up to two weeks — if instructed to do so by public health officials.

That’s bad news for those businesses and their employees.

Even if the swine flu outbreak fails to reach the predicted severity, most companies will have to deal with some level of absenteeism this fall, and some will find themselves having to decentralize their operations, with employees working from home.

My advice to communicators:  don’t treat these predictions as hyperbole.  Take time now to review your business continuity and crisis communications plans.  Reach out to your counterparts in HR and make sure there is a policy in place for swine flu-related call-outs.  Set up a phone number that your employees can call into to hear a recorded message about building closures and alternate work locations.  Most importantly, let your employees know that the company is taking these preparations seriously.

As they say in the disaster business, the secret to surviving a crisis is to “plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Hidden Messages in Your Employee Publication

Hidden MessagesA few years ago, while waiting for a professional colleague in the lobby of her company’s headquarters, I leafed through a copy of the employee publication on display in the waiting area.

The company was at the center of an industry controversy, and I knew that much of colleague’s time – and her staff’s – over the past two months had been devoted to rebuilding the company’s reputation and employee morale.

So I was, admittedly, shocked when I saw that the “A” story on the front page was, “Laughing at Work.” 

Diving deeper into the publication, I noted that more than half the content was devoted to employee transaction issues (a new password policy, extended hours for the Benefits line, etc.) and the remaining content was what I classify as “happy people” stories. 

Not one sentence about the recent challenges, how management was addressing the issues, or the employee and teams who were working to rectify the problems. 

Just “Laughing at Work.”  And a “Guess Whose Baby Photo?” contest.

So what message does that send to employees?  That management was trying to cover up the problems?  That the employees shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about the issue?

In fairness, I had no access to any of the prior publications or any other mass employee communications that the company might have issued during their crisis of confidence.  But I suspect that the disconnect I saw in that publication was not a stand-alone issue.

The content of your employee publication, whether it is a printed monthly magazine (and I’m sure those have been slashed in the current economic environment), a bi-weekly email compendium, or a daily intranet homepage, reflects the role you expect your employees to play in the company’s success.

By limiting the content of your publication to “happy people” anecdotes and announcements of new employee discount programs, you miss the opportunity to speak openly to your staff about the challenges the company faces every day…and the important role your employees play in overcoming those challenges and driving success.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Once the Layoffs Are Done, It’s Time to Focus on the Survivors

Much time and effort are devoted to preparing for a layoff:  announcements, notifications, group meetings, severance packages, outplacement assistance, etc.

When properly managed, the layoff process ensures that “downsized” employees have sufficient information, assistance and attention to lessen the sting of their job loss.

But what about the remaining staff members?  What about their needs and concerns?

In the aftermath of a layoff period, many managers fail to recognize that their remaining employees aren’t ready to jump right back into “business as usual.”

These employees are the survivors, with all the fears and concerns they had before they learned that they were spared in the cuts.  Plus, they have a whole new list of worries:  “Who is going to do all this work now?”  “How will my job change?”  “Will my job be the next one to be cut?”

Smart managers will recognize that the layoff period is every bit as traumatic for survivors as for the departing employees.  Instead of minimizing those concerns, smart managers recognize them and find ways to bring concerns out into the open, addressing as many as possible, as soon as possible.

Whether it’s small group discussions or one-on-one meetings, managers need to make survivor communications a priority; inviting employees to ask questions, offer suggestions and voice their concerns.

If nothing else, the remaining employees will walk away with a bit more clarity around their role in the restructured organization.

Home Depot Remodels Internal Communications

home-depotThere’s something going on at Home Depot.

During a visit to my local Home Depot this week – my first in several months — I immediately spotted some changes, the first being the four orange apron-clad employees who greeted me as I walked in the door and offered to help me locate the items on my list.

I admit it – my first thought was that I was singled out because of my gender, sort of a reverse profiling.  But I quickly realized that every customer who entered was greeted in the same way.

I saw lots of other changes too, such as increased staff in the paint department (a source of much past frustration) and lots of stock on the shelves.  As I engaged in some casual conversation with the cashier, he mentioned that Home Depot is making a number of changes, all designed to win back customers and build loyalty.  That’s right, the cashier told me.

From an employee communications standpoint, that type of interaction is enough to send us into a happy trance.  We face a daily struggle to ensure that, amidst all the other “white noise” generated by our organization, employees at every level of the organization are familiar with the company’s goals and know how their work supports those goals.  Clearly, the folks at Home Depot are on the right track.

I did a little digging when I got home and found a BusinessWeek article from mid-May, “Putting Home Depot’s House in Order.”  I was interested to read that, in addition to a number of operational changes implemented by the retailer’s newest executive vice president of U.S. stores, the communications team has implemented a new policy designed to tame the email beast.  Instead of the 200 or so company emails and reports that a manager would typically receive on Mondays, the flood has been reduced to a single message.  The remaining info is posted to the company’s intranet.

Having been on the frontlines of that battle at a former company, I have great respect for Home Depot’s communications team and their ability to change behaviors, both at the corporate level where “Information push” is the general rule of thumb and at the unit level, where lack of time is often cited as an obstacle to intranet adoption.

Apparently, the Home Depot employee communications team found an opportunity to integrate their change into the division’s overall business strategy, successfully linking streamlined communications with more time for the store manager to focus on customer service and satisfaction.

Like the best home remodel, that internal communications change should yield a significant return on their customer win-back efforts.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

What to Tell Employees When You Don’t Have All the Answers

Layoffs. Plant closings. Mergers. Executive departures.

These are uncertain times and, thanks to the economy, fear and paranoia, the rumor mill is stronger than ever.

When a company is gearing up for a major change during these uncertain times, the worst approach leadership can take is to hold off on communicating to employees until all decisions have been made, to sit back and wait until they have all the answers before addressing rumors and speculation.

So what do you say when you don’t have all the answers, when there are still unknowns? How do you announce a change when there are still many variables to be decided or when the end game is not entirely clear?

First, don’t discount the role of the manager or supervisor in this scenario. Employees will often go to their manager for “the real story” and if the management team has not been briefed in advance, they won’t be able to reinforce the key messages. Make sure that your managers understand the issues, can answer question about the facts at hand, and are comfortable reinforcing the unknown elements of the change.

Next, leadership should introduce the change with an acknowledgement that employees will have concerns and that there will be opportunities to voice those concerns. They should stress that this initial announcement is intended to provide context and outline the elements of the change that are known at this time, as well as the unknown. In addition, they should articulate a timeline for the change and specify which programs, divisions or teams may be impacted.

The first communication should set the stage for future updates and reinforce a commitment to communicate frequently as more information becomes available. It should also include instructions for voicing concerns or raising questions – to the manager, the executive, etc. And it should close with a sincere acknowledgement of how difficult change is in any organization and that the organization appreciates the employees support and dedication.

You owe it to your employees to be as honest and direct as possible about the changes afoot. This open communication won’t eliminate the rumor mill, but it will keep it in check.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Handling Tough Questions From Employees

During a town hall meeting a few years ago, I witnessed, first-hand, the worst possible response to a tough employee question.

The employees at this location, about 800 of them, were primarily hourly workers at the local call center. Up to this point, most of the questions from the floor centered on the overall industry, competition and new product releases. Pretty standard fare for this type of session, and the executives on the panel handled themselves with their characteristic poise and candor.

That all changed when a women, about five months pregnant, stood to ask her question.

She told the panel that she rode the bus to work and that the only affordable option for daycare was near her home, about an hour’s ride and two transfers away from the job site. She mentioned that many of her co-workers were also having difficulty juggling child care with shift hours. And she asked, “Will we ever get a daycare center onsite?”

The executive’s answer: “No.”

No expression of empathy. No acknowledgement of her struggles. Just “no.”

The audience was, to say the least, not pleased with the way that question was answered. In fact, the mood of the room deteriorated rapidly, and we’re lucky we made it out in one piece.

So what would have been a better response?

Well, for starters, it would have been good to show some genuine appreciation for the employee and her coworkers who dealt with work-life balance issues on a daily basis, yet still managed to put up impressive customer satisfaction scores.

And maybe the executive could have talked about fact that daycare was far outside the company’s core offerings, and that anything as precious as a child should be cared for by highly-skilled professionals.

At the very least, the executive could have thanked the employee for her question, and requested that he be allowed time to give such an important decision the thought it deserved. Later, after engaging local management in a fact-finding and discussion, he could follow up with that location to explain the company’s decision not to offer onsite daycare.

But he didn’t.

Moral of the story – before answering a tough question from employee, take a minute to think about what motivated the question. In many instances, the employee isn’t looking for an immediate solution – just an acknowledgement that his/her concerns are valid and that the company cares.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.

Bridging the Credibility Gap with Employee Communications

Susan_Rink-portrait-forwebA few years ago, a friend of mine was hired to conduct employee focus groups to gauge reactions to a new, and rather expensive, employee awareness campaign.  When she asked for comments about the company’s communications vehicles, one participant pointed to the Exit sign over the door and said, “That’s the only sign in this place that I trust.  The rest are all bulls___.”

Now, that’s a credibility gap!

Many companies suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do.  One classic example is the company that trumpets, “Our people are our greatest asset!” while they establish employee policies that restrict creativity and entrepreneurial thinking.  Or their executives talk about “work-life balance,” but employees feel pressured to check email and call in for staff meetings while on vacation.  No surprise that these companies suffer from higher than average turnover and low productivity.

Companies that truly value their employees demonstrate their high regard by treating their employees like adults, like valued business partners.

These organizations foster an environment of open discussion and respectful conflict, encouraging employees to take ownership of issues and voice their suggestions for improvements.  And when it comes time to be recognized, the employees’ contributions to the company’s success are rewarded.

So how can employee communicators bridge the credibility gap?  Well, if your company is in the midst of a crisis of confidence, it won’t be easy.  But it can be done.

First, you must establish a culture of open dialogue, one where employees are comfortable voicing dissenting opinions without fear of reprisal.  That can be accomplished by publishing contrarian points of view in your newsletter and on your intranet.  Managers can reinforce this new culture by inviting employees to voice their objections, and listen without becoming defensive.

Next, you must ensure that your company recognition programs, both formal and informal, reward behaviors that reflect your desired culture. Don’t restrict recognition to tenure.  If the one of the company values is innovation, then employees who think differently and challenge traditional processes should be recognized.

Finally, the best way to bridge the credibility gap is with timely, transparent employee communications.  Executives, managers –and the internal communications team — must commit to addressing real business issues and providing honest progress updates that are free of spin and “corporate speak.”

Otherwise, once the economy turns your employees will be looking for that Exit sign.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.