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Jennifer Benz October 16, 2008 3 min read

Communication is Essential in Uncertain Times

Answers to common questions about “crisis communication”

There’s a lot going on to make people nervous about the economy, their jobs and their future security. Given the state of affairs, the worst thing employers can do is remain quiet. Uncertain times are just when you should be communicating more—and getting executives and leadership in visible positions, talking openly with employees.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about “crisis communication” in the last few weeks. Here’s a quick recap of the most-frequent.

How do we communicate to employees when we’re still making financial decisions and don’t have all the answers?

Just because you don’t have all the answers, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate. You’re allowed to tell employees what you do know and what you don’t. Do acknowledge issues that you know are top-of-mind for employees (like layoffs or salary increases) but don’t delay communicating until you know every last detail—it’s a great way to get the rumor mill started and for employees to feel like decisions are being made without them. See my next post for a simple template for executive communication that acknowledges “we don’t know everything.”

How do we shift communication tactics during a time like this?

First of all, don’t think that “crisis communication” calls for a completely different approach. All the same rules apply as when you’re communicating during “normal” business—be consistent, open, honest, engaging, authentic, etc. The difference is the topic you’re talking about, the time-sensitive nature and the inevitable emotions and fear that are involved. Take all of those into consideration, but don’t rethink the rules or what has worked well in the past.

We’re about to roll out big benefits changes. How do we set context and let employees know these are not a reaction to recent events, but part of a longer-term strategy?

In an ideal world, you’ve had several years to educate your employees about your health care strategy and they know what’s been happening to health care costs and how your company is handling them. If that sounds like a fairy tale land, you’re not alone. Many companies are increasing health care costs at the same time as layoffs are being announced, bonuses being cut and salary increases being put on the back burner. This is a big ouch for employees as health care costs can put a significant dent in their paychecks—as well as ongoing expenses. Get the health care cost message into overall business communication coming from leadership. The worst thing you can do is have your execs talking about overall business strategy and cut-backs and then have HR send out a separate communication on cost increases for benefits. Not only will you appear uncoordinated, but it will be a slap in the face from employees who thought they were getting the whole story from execs.

Incorporate these into your communication for more success:

  • Let employees know what’s happening in the big picture with health care, exactly what changes are being made and why.
  • Be specific about what will impact costs and how that compares to current plan offerings (don’t make employees do the math themselves).
  • Give employees specific examples that are relevant for them (based on demographics/family situations).
  • Show employees how they can save money with their choices (by moving to a lower-cost plan or enrolling in the FSA or HSA)

What if we don’t communicate currently? Won’t starting to communicate sound the alarm that something really bad is happening?

Not if you do a good job with your communication. Let employees know why they are getting new information—they will appreciate the new effort. Also, be as complete and honest about what’s happening and why you’re communicating—following the “let them know what you don’t know rule.” The “crisis” can be a good way to get a rogue communication process in place and set the precedent to start communicating regularly.

How do we make employees feel more secure?

Talk to them, give them a way to talk back (like responding to a leadership blog) and respond to questions and concerns. Keeping the dialog open is the best way to earn respect and loyalty from your employees during uncertain times.

Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.