Disruption can come to any company at any time. Market conditions, new technology, bad press or a host of other factors can change a business with little warning. In fact, 63% of HR leaders say they expect significant change in their industry over the next three years, according to Mercer’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report.
Disruptive change can come in many forms but often has similar effects. Employee engagement can decline significantly, top performers may jump ship — and if change isn’t managed, the fallout could last long after the disruption has ended. A proactive approach by HR and leadership can manage disruptive change effectively, keeping employees on staff and on task.
Have a plan
Planning should start long before disruption hits, suggests Craig Johnson, partner at Mercer. "Having employee communication guiding principles that are socialized for HR managers before a significant change occurs can be very helpful," he told HR Dive in an email. They can include a broad list of things to do and say, and to not do and say, during a change event. Some companies create "change toolkits" that include talking points, FAQs and presentation slides that convey how to address and handle change, he noted.
It's key that this plan be comprehensive and strategic, according to Mike Bentley, US leader for Deloitte Consulting LLP's Change Strategy and Analytics practice. "Understand, at a very detailed level, what is changing and take that next step to know what that change means for employees," he told HR Dive in an email. Even small changes may loom large in the context of the overall disruption, he warns; these "may be something that needs to be prioritized in a communication because the impact on employees is significant."
Employers also may want to designate a key communicator, said Laura Hamill, chief people officer and chief science officer at Limeade. It should be someone employees relate to and respect. "When delivering the news, that person should make it human while staying on message," she told HR Dive in an email.
Plan on giving employees time to process the information and come back with questions, Hamill said, and "most importantly, try to connect things back to something that is core and everlasting to your organization (for example, your company values)."
Employers should prioritize ease of finding information, Bentley said. "Don’t let employees feel lost or unsure of where to go with questions," he said. Post information regularly and communicate where that information can be found.
Keep communication open
Employees need to understand the reason for the change and see that they are capable of working differently, Brian Kropp, group vice president at Gartner’s HR Practice, said in an email. "To achieve employee understanding, organizations should shift to open-talk conversations with employees rather than the typical top-down approach of telling employees things," he noted.
Or, to put it more frankly: "Stop hoarding information," Jordan George, head of leadership and talent development at CFE Federal Credit Union, told HR Dive in an email. Make it understood by all levels of the organization that your preference is for immediate communication to keep all parties in the loop; even if change occurs during the change, open communication is preferable to holding all communication "until everything is absolutely dialed in, which can be massively destructive in an environment of rapid change," he added.
"In the typical top-down world," Kropp said, "employees are not part of the change conversation; they are simply the recipients of change directions." Organizations should give employees the opportunity to contribute and encourage them to help drive changes forward by speaking up, he suggested.
Dealing with the downsizing blues
"Layoffs are never easy," Erwin van der Vlist, co-founder and CEO at Speakap, told HR Dive in an email, but they’re often a necessary reality for businesses. For this type of disruption, communicating often requires navigating various legal, financial, operational and HR concerns. "The first thing that HR managers should do," van der Vlist said, "is anticipate the many questions that will be raised by employees."
Be prepared to respond to the reason for the downsizing; how many will be affected and when; if they will be offered assistance to find other work; and how remaining employees will be impacted. Offer as much information as possible, without infringing on employee privacy, and be prepared for follow-up questions and concerns. "The most important thing HR managers should be thinking about during a time of layoffs is how they can mitigate and minimize heightened panic and mistrust amongst employees," van der Vlist said. "This should be the impetus and driving force behind every decision HR managers make about communicating with employees during this time."
To minimize fallout, make sure managers can have honest communications with employees. They’ll need to be ready to address emotional responses and admit they don’t have all the answers.
Johnson suggests managers strive to be empathetic in both their written and face-to-face communication with employees. "Face-to-face communication, although becoming increasingly rare in many companies, may be a better forum in which to share change-based messaging," he noted. Some companies conduct "listening tours" during disruptive events to show concern for employees’ wellbeing, he said; "It is a great way to proactively get accurate messages circulated to the workforce."
Shut down the gossip mill
Gossip occurs in the workplace for two key reasons, according to van der Vlist: employees fear the unknown and companies fail to communicate clearly and openly. "This often spirals into confusion, misunderstandings, frustration and mistrust among employees," he said. The key to stopping this is proactive and personalized employee communications.
Being hands-on in communications can slow the rumor mill. "It’s harder for naysayers to distort reality when communication is pushed out early and often," George said.
It’s also important to make sure leaders and managers aren’t fueling gossip and that they understand how important it is to stick to the message, Hamill said. Ensure employees have a place to go for information. "Let’s be honest," she said, "turbulence can be distracting and takes time to process. The best thing we can do is have empathy for our people and be there to support them."
After the shock
Work needs to continue in the wake of change, but disruption can be emotional and leave employees uncertain about their futures, Bentley said. "Organized communications allow you to address changes in a manner that is planned, take into account the holistic experience, and can turn the disruption into an opportunity to strengthen the employee’s ties and relationship to the organization," he said.
Ultimately, it’s not about building employee commitment to the change, according to Kropp; rather, it’s about building employee capability to work in a new way post-change.
"When you are sharing something negative, lead with a message of care," Hamill said. "This means treating employees as whole people and instilling a sense of mutual commitment. You’re in this together – make it feel that way." Once a company has addressed immediate concerns, she said, it can then shift to a focus on the positives about the culture like career growth, employee recognition and company values. Paint a vision of the future together.