Picture this: Your company is about to roll out some new changes that will affect all employees. How do you communicate that?
Employees always have an opinion about change, whether it’s good or bad. It can be simple or complex. It can directly impact them or not. It can be the understanding that they need to update paperwork for health benefits. Or knowing the process to be considered for promotion. The news and implementation of a restructuring or a merger are extreme examples of change.
Not surprisingly, employees at companies undergoing transition — such as restructuring, merger, or acquisition — trust management less and feel less informed than do employees at stable companies. Even companies that performed well last year have been challenged with putting their business plan and vision in context of world events for employees. Added stress and confusion in the marketplace increases the desire for information and communication.
One of the most difficult times for communication is during bankruptcy. When US Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002, they needed to communicate that message to more than 35,000 employees. To complicate matters, employees were sure to be grilled by passengers on how the bankruptcy would affect both their travel and safety. So on the day of the bankruptcy, US Airways launched all of their communications to employees. Employees at all levels of the company were given information about what the bankruptcy would mean, and how to communicate that message to passengers and business partners.
So what was the end result? During reorganization, US Airways was ranked first for 2002 in an annual airline-quality rating conducted by the University of Nebraska and Wichita State University. And seven months later, the company successfully emerged from Chapter 11. Had the company not handled their communications well, the results could have been drastically different.
Below are some thoughts on different degrees of “drawing back the curtain” and the impact of these approaches.
1. Do nothing or as little as possible. Companies sometimes go this route because they don’t want to rock the boat. The irony is it’s the most sure way to sink the Titanic. It takes years to build trust and a second to lose it. If employees feel leadership is not interested in their thoughts or contributions at a pivotal time in the company, then the damage can be permanent. Plus, the communications world we live in is not conducive to “going dark” – Twitter and Facebook have made sure of that. Some companies post company news on Twitter to be sure employees have access to the same information as consumers.
2. Tell people who have a need to know. This approach creates an inner and outer circle among employees. The closer you are to the center, the more special you feel. You can generate a lot of buzz this way, but you also can lose brand ambassadors in the making. Some companies are using “invitation only” campaigns to test social media with employees. This usually works pretty well because the end goal is to grow the network so that everyone is engaged. Another rule of thumb is that when it comes to cultural news and information, the need-to-know approach doesn’t work. At Tribe, we’ve found that the way that companies approach internal culture pieces correlates with how they engage employees as a whole. We’ve worked with Fortune 100 companies on culture books, and their approaches vary wildly. Some leadership teams involve employees extensively, even having them create the content themselves. Others tell the employees what the culture ought to be in a way that’s about as gentle as hitting a nail with a hammer.
3. Gather consensus from the beginning. It’s human nature to embrace change more when you’ve been included in the process. While this is a proven way to foster brand ambassadors, the risk is getting bogged down in the back and forth of gaining the buy-in from a large workforce. In the end, someone’s got to be in charge and that person or persons will have more facts and information at their fingertips. Another consideration is that the earlier you communicate news, the better prepared you need to be to move fast and follow through with sustaining communications. When it’s good news, you want to leverage it as long as possible. And, on the flip side, if it’s not good news, prompt and clear communications indicate grace and a vision for the future when under fire.