They say that when you laugh the world laughs with you and when you cry you cry alone. But during these recessionary times this old adage no longer holds true. Bad news surrounds us and there are very few people and organisations are not affected in one way or another.
Being the bearer of bad news is never a pleasant task, but well-handled communications can help minimise the impact on an organisation while getting it wrong can cause permanent, even fatal, damage to a business’s reputation.
A few years ago a Manchester company, The British Amulet, group made 2,500 people redundant by text message. The message said, in part, “you are being made redundant with immediate effect”. Google the company now and you get 192 links….every single one relates to the SMS incident. This is probably not a legacy that the company directors had hoped for.
More recently, with the demise of Woolworths we saw another high-profile example of how not to handle bad news. The retailer’s employees found out the company was closing through the news media. You can imagine their shock and distress and how it might have effected staff morale going into the crucial Christmas season.
Here in the Isle of Man we recently saw a large finance sector organisation inform some employees of impending redundancy while others were kept in the dark. It didn’t take long for the newspaper to get the story, and so then soon everyone knew.
Although announcing redundancies is never easy, an organisation can help members of their workforce through the upheaval and help them prepare emotionally for any turn of events. The first priority is keeping people informed of circumstances.
It’s best to have prepared a contingency plan for communicating bad news long before it’s ever required. Good planning can’t occur at the last minute.
This is easiest if open and honest communication is already part of a company’s culture. However, without an established framework that supports a dialogue of full disclosure, it’s easy to screw up internal communications in a crisis and actually make things worse for the company in the long run.
Next, you need to keep supervisors and managers fully informed to gain their support. They provide the human touch that an intranet can never have and will be key in providing emotional support to all workers, those leaving and, importantly, those who will remain after a round of redundancies.
Never underestimate the power of the grapevine. It’s probably the fastest, most powerful communication channel and it has tremendous influence. This has always been true within organisations, but online communication technologies like email and instant messaging mean that rumours can travel like wildfire, or even faster. Managing the message and communicating with a range of stakeholders at internet speed is a complex task and takes careful consideration.
Instead, many organisations are tempted by the ‘less said the better’ philosophy. But creating an information vacuum gives rise the to grapevine and risks losing control of the agenda and having a company’s reputation materially damaged through rumour and innuendo.
Preparing the team
One group that might need extra support when redundancies are announced is the team involved in delivering the message and handling the responses. These individuals often suffer incredible stress – especially when they are in the front lines with people who are losing their jobs, having their benefits or wages cut, or with anyone who is apt to have a strong emotional response to the circumstances. The remaining employees too suffer stress, often referred to as “survivors’ syndrome”. They are weighed down feelings of guilt because they were spared where friends and co workers were not.