Quite accidentally, Chipotle has become the public face of crisis employee training.
Last month, the burrito chain announced that it would close its almost 2000 restaurants for at least half a day to train employees on food safety. This was prompted by reported outbreaks of E. Coli, Salmonella and norovirus that affected hundreds of people, Thinkprogress reported.
In an email to Thinkprogress, Chipotle said they were meeting that day to "thank employees for their hard work" and answer questions about various food safety changes they were making — a reaction that was clearly both a PR move and serious strategy.
"When you have three outbreaks in the same restaurant, you can't be reactive, you have to be proactive," Darin Detwiler, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University who also works at STOP Foodborne Illness, told the International Business Times in November. "I work with many companies that are proactive, but employee training at restaurants is paramount."
For consumer-facing companies especially, handling the outside message when things go wrong while also trying to maintain a strong internal talent brand is vital — and challenging. HR Dive spoke to Josh Ostrega, COO and co-founder of Workjam, to discuss how to handle a crisis, but also how to provide consistent, verifiable training which could go a long way towards avoiding any crisis.
The importance of employee ambassadors
First things first: A company in hot water must know its story — and feel confident enough to communicate it immediately to employees.
In the social media era, companies can't afford to have an employee's message about the work environment go viral, especially while things are going wrong.
"What's important to realize is that employees today are extremely connected," Ostrega said. "They may not always be connected with their employer, though they should be. But they are very linked to each other from a social standpoint."
That means one employee can soon start an echo chamber of complaints, particularly if other employees are affected by the mishap. To combat this, employers should make it the first priority to provide accurate information upfront about what is going on and what it means for all involved so that employees can instead be empowered to be "brand ambassadors."
"Businesses that are pretty consumer facing and have hourly workers, they don't always have that level of communication set up," Ostrega added. Often, frontline employees don't even have email addresses, meaning their only form of communication from the company is direct from a manager. And not all managers are fabulous communicators (especially if they feel disgruntled by the crisis, too).
"Implement tech that allows you to be extremely connected with employees and get the right info into their hands as fast as possible," he said.
Part of this is undeniably a part of the talent and recruitment brand. Things won't always go right. Employees need to be assured that when problems arise, the company values accountability and will communicate openly with their employees when crises call.
Employees have to actually do the training
The next priority: Ensure that the training to prevent future crises is not a one-time event. Crisis training is best when it becomes a consistent part of employee learning.
Ostrega cites companies using paper binders and manuals or some analog process that is not easy to update or adapt as part of the problem. In those cases, managers often resort to training people by off the books, leading to inconsistencies.
"To have consistent messaging, you have to have a medium to do that," Ostrega said. "If something is created in the head office, it is published but it also must be seen and validated that people are going through the process."
Validation that employees are actually doing the training may be one missing link for many large companies. Research from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and the Aspen Institute's UpSkill America, revealed that while 89% of organizations currently offer development opportunities to frontline workers, the vast majority of respondents (73%) indicate that they either don't know how many frontline workers take advantage of development opportunities or that their organizations don't track that metric.
The bottom line: A powerfully made crisis training module won't mean a thing if there's no way to confirm that employees are actually fully trained.
How to make training stick
To help training last beyond the singular moment of crisis, employers can turn to a number of strategies to encourage meaningful participation.
The training materials should be accessible and digestible. A 60 second video on how to wash lettuce may be much more helpful than a 10 page manual on the subject. Companies should also invest in a solid, reliable way to deliver those learning programs, be it through an app, computer platform, or other easy to update system.
Ostrega particularly calls for gamification as a way to motivate and recognize employees.
"Why not award different employees badges or some sort of recognition for completing certain training?" he said. "That kind of info can help them earn benefits, like maybe having better shifts scheduled, based on validating that they have hit their training goals."
Above all, to ensure that no employee falls through the cracks, training should accommodate fast learners and those who need to go through a subject a couple times to understand it, Ostrega said.
Quality training programs do two things at once — improves the service quality of the staff and keeps the messaging and training consistent over time. Such systems avoid relying on managers who may "water down" the message.
"Technically, with the right tools in place, a company could create a training this afternoon and literally the whole company would have access to the training immediately," Ostrega said. "From a crisis standpoint, that is the important thing."