New insight into employee crisis communication

Communication, care and consideration are key during a crisis.

An employee-centred approach is good for employees, and for organisations too, in an organisational crisis. This was highlighted by University of Stellenbosch MBA graduate Leana Kotze in the first South African study to explore the crisis communication needs of employees specifically.

Kotze said her study was motivated by a “dearth of both local and global research” on internal crisis communication.

Her research provides new insights into employee crisis communication in South Africa and offers practical recommendations for managers to optimise internal crisis communication in a more employee-centred way.

The uncertainty, insecurity, fear and anxiety that go hand-in-hand with a crisis negatively affect employee productivity and engagement, and in turn affect the organisation’s performance, yet research shows that employees’ needs are often ignored in a crisis.

Employees need to make sense of a crisis through clear, relevant, useful and consistent communication, they need practical guidance on how to continue doing their jobs, and they need to believe that the employer is showing care and consideration for them, and listening to them.

She conducted separate focus groups with senior executives and with employees, drawn from a number of organisations that had previously experienced crises.

Her research found that employees have a strong need for “sensemaking” – the process of gathering and processing information to understand and make sense of a crisis, and find meaning, direction and purpose for moving forward. They expect their employers to provide that information and will turn to the grapevine instead if they don’t, causing a risk of unfounded rumours and misinformation spreading.

“Employees want communication that they deem clear, relevant and useful. To be relevant and useful, information should enable employees to do their jobs, help them understand how they and their work are impacted by the crisis, and tell them how to act in response to the crisis,” Kotze said.

Crises are perceived as a threat and they spark fear, she said, and “employees need to believe that the leadership is in control and need to be made aware of what management is doing to manage the crisis”.

Kotze recommends a number of guidelines for managers to consider in developing an employee-centred approach to internal crisis communication:

  • Provide employees with information on their job security, salary, and related issues. If this information is incomplete or not yet available, openly communicate the reasons, and assure employees that information will be provided as soon as it is available.
  • Messages must be consistent, and the organisation’s actions must line up with what has been communicated.
  • Make use of surveys, questionnaires, feedback platforms and personal interaction to “ask and listen” to employees’ needs. This should include physical or virtual platforms where employees can air grievances and raise concerns.
  • Give employees options to engage anonymously with the organisation.
  • Show care and consideration, through asking and listening, taking concrete actions aimed at meeting employees’ needs and addressing emotions and reactions to the crisis.
  • Communication that encourages work to go on is necessary but must show sensitivity to the impact of the crisis on the ground.
  • Communication and visibility from senior leadership are essential, and they should also deploy direct line managers and supervisors to play a key role in gauging sentiment, facilitating collective sensemaking, and giving feedback to the organisation on employees’ needs and concerns.
  • Be wary of “information overload” which can overwhelm and cause further anxiety or confusion.