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.”

Advertisements

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.

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

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.