Handling difficult internal COVID comms
by Mimi Kalinda. Difficult internal communication in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis: announcing bankruptcy.Monday, 18 May 2020
by Mimi Kalinda. Difficult internal communication in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis: announcing bankruptcy. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a debilitating effect on economies worldwide. Companies – from start-ups to global giants – are being forced to downsize their operations – and their workforces. However, the more serious issue is that countless businesses around the world have been rendered insolvent, and many are facing bankruptcy.
If you are a business leader confronted with such a situation, how do you handle breaking the news to your employees and stakeholders? This is an immensely daunting announcement to make under any circumstance; but your approach and care can make a vast difference when it comes to the emotional and practical impact the news has on your staff. Empathy, sensitivity and support are vital components when communicating the reality of bankruptcy and job losses; as well as a genuine concern to help your employees deal with the dire situation.
Firstly, news of impending job losses should be kept confidential until a formal announcement is made by company executives to staff. If the information is leaked prior, it is almost impossible to prevent rampant rumours, and the disruption that comes with them. You should also let employees know as soon as a final decision has been made so they have as much time as possible to find alternative solutions. Before breaking the news, have well planned statements prepared, customised to different stakeholder groups; such as employees, suppliers, clients and the media.
There will undoubtedly be negative fallout following the announcement, so it’s important to also have crisis communication planned to manage negative internal and external feedback. The type of communication required will depend on the size of the company, its industry, and the role it plays within local, national and global economies. Anticipate the type of questions to be expected from staff, and have accurate responses available, such as showing that contingency plans have been considered and all options to save the company have been exhausted. Also, ensure that legal processes have been adhered to, and that you are able to show proof of this should employees demand it. Consult legal and Human Resource (HR) practitioners to make sure that everything is procedurally correct and in line with ethical business practices.
Communication and approach
Usually, it is best to make an announcement such as this face-to-face with employees. However, given the nature of the COVID-19 crisis, it may be best to arrange an organisation-wide live video conference where all employees are informed concurrently; followed by carefully constructed written correspondence confirming the details. The approach to communication should be sensitive and sincere, with an understanding of the far-reaching consequences that job losses will result in for employees. For example, some may be sole breadwinners with multiple dependents, and company leaders need to have real empathy for the plight staff are now faced with.
When addressing staff, be as transparent as possible, including regarding the financial state of the business. If there is information you cannot disclose, be upfront about the need for confidentiality rather than provide inaccurate or misleading responses. This also includes discussions about salaries, commission, bonuses and other financial payouts due to staff – let them know where they stand with receipt of payouts and expected timelines.
It is likely that the news of company bankruptcy and loss of employment will blindside your staff. As part of your commitment to your employees, consider ways in which to support them in the wake of the announcement. Seek professional advice from crisis management consultants on how to ease the impact of the news. Have an open-door policy to discuss the situation one-on-one with employees. If possible, provide some sort of financial relief or payout to staff. Aside from monetary assistance, the company can arrange for financial planners to be available to employees to help them manage debt right from the onset.
Create well-researched internal communication documents with useful information, such as how to claim for unemployment earnings and advice on reviewing personal insurance policies for benefits related to retrenchment. Executives and staff can also tap into their professional networks to help connect each other with job opportunities; and the business should consider arranging recruitment services to assist staff during the period following the announcement. While preparation and authenticity are essential for internal communication of any kind, conveying news with serious negative implications for your employees requires even more tact and understanding. Liaise with internal or external communication specialists to mitigate risk and plan the best ways to approach the highly sensitive conversation. Despite the grim situation, your employees are likely to appreciate genuine concern and tangible support.
Mimi Kalinda, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda and raised in South Africa, is the Group CEO and Co-founder of Africa Communications Media Group, a pan African public relations and communications agency based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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