Disaster strikes. The CEO or another key C-suite member departs suddenly — not due to retirement, but due to allegations of rule-breaking or bad behavior. It's all over the news and employees are worried. It's the definition of fire that must be put out, and quickly.
Such a scenario isn't unusual these days. Last month, McDonald's ousted its CEO Steve Easterbrook after it was revealed that he'd been in a consensual relationship with an employee (against company policy); the chain's CPO resigned not long after. In early December, a potential replacement for BlackRock's CEO got the boot over an unreported consensual relationship with an employee, a few months after the company's HR chief left over a similar violation of company policy.
HR leaders — provided they aren't embroiled in the issue themselves — have a responsibility to step up when leaders leave, experts told HR Dive. In a time of crisis, HR pros can prove their strategic worth by guiding internal messaging and focusing on the company's people.
Before the CEO leaves, HR leaders can make the job easier on themselves by succession planning before a crisis strikes. In response to a tight talent market, employers are building succession plans for nearly every role, Tarah Cook, senior HR consultant at strategic HR inc., told HR Dive. This strategy can ensure the company is ready for any transition, expected or otherwise.
"It's less surprising to HR when a C-suite member moves because we've already thought through and prepared, ideally, for a transition," Cook said. "Some of it is abrupt, but if you are prepared, you can still be ready for it."
These plans are "more comprehensive than ever," she added. Well-prepared companies can have employees ready to fill in the gaps — or at least know where development or hiring may be required before someone departs. Additionally, Cook suggested that employers have a new leader assimilation plan in place that can outline current business results, key initiatives and the ongoing plan of action for their transition.
Start communication immediately
Once the worst happens, HR's first goal is to provide a sense of stability, Cook said. Make sure managers are engaging team members and listening to their concerns.
"Where HR can play the most valuable role is making sure there's a plan," Brandi Britton, district president at Robert Half, told HR Dive. Know "who the communications should come from and who that communication should touch. Managers may not think outside their department, but HR usually is."
That plan could involve a coordinated response team and should feature all levels of the company, not just managers. "It should not just be ‘here's the memo and we're done,'" Britton said. Be aware of the questions that will inevitably arise following a sudden departure and keep in mind that employees may feel deeply worried about their own position in a time of upheaval.
"Who is going to assume the position of leadership in the absence of the CEO? And how is that going to impact the day-to-day operations of the company? What does that mean in this moment?" Matt Williams, a leadership facilitator at Lifelabs Learning, said. "That sense of security is compromised in those moments. You want to reassure people where they're safe," he told HR Dive.
Consider a variety of questions: What will be business as usual? Where might there be changes? And remember: Leadership can't afford to ignore that some people may be uncomfortable.
"It's not just sharing what changes happened, but walking people through what's in it for them," Britton said. Why should they stick around? Acknowledge the good that is going on at the organization and try not to lose focus on what's going on with the business, Cook said.
HR leaders also should ensure they have a communication line with the new leader, Cook said, as talent leaders may be the keeper of "a lot of information" that needs to be shared with that new leader.
After the initial plan is followed and the first communications go out, HR isn't done. An issue like this will require "frequent communications," Britton said, such as following up 30 days, 60 days and 90 days after the fact. That may include answering questions and concerns that bubble up after the initial incident.
"One CEO we worked with had an issue with sexual harassment," Williams said, "but it put everyone on edge. Responding to those concerns are really important."
Once enough time has passed and key stakeholders know what's next, close the loop, Williams said. If people tell you something is bothering them, respond to it. Source input directly from whoever may have been impacted and hear what they need. Making space for listening can surface "underlying needs," he said, which can shape the options for moving forward.
"Whether it's a poor business decision or something else, folks want to know, especially if they are engaged and invested, how is this impacting me and how can I be a part of making sure I'm safe and the company continues to grow and succeed?" Williams said. Employees should be treated as partners every step of the way and their input should be sought, especially if HR wants to cultivate a feeling of ownership across the organization.
The core of it: values
In the midst of trouble, HR must keep values at the center. Even if the departing leader was the face of the company, the values that make up a company's mission are not tied up in one person, Cook said. And how a company reacts when a senior leader is not upholding those values is equally as important as how it acts when it has a leader that does.
Put values at the center of communications to employees, particularly in explanations for departure decisions. "HR can play an integral role in reminding people what the brand of the company is and reinforcing what the brand of the company is," Britton said. That includes being upfront and honest about what is happening — and being frank when you can't speak to something, she added.
While HR still may be fighting to be heard in some organizations, times of strife can showcase the department's importance. "Where HR can really be of value is they can ensure people are cared for in the organization," Williams said. "That's the unique positioning for the HR professional."