How to communicate with employees during times of tension

A man in silhouette looks out over a foggy mountain range

Do you check the news (or worse, Twitter) every morning? Many of us have developed that unfortunate habit over the last few years—reflexively scrolling through the latest doom-laden headlines before rolling out of bed. And these days, sometimes what shows up on the screen can make someone want to stay in bed indefinitely.

Yet we all have a duty to keep going—despite the problems people are currently facing across the world. (Odds are you don’t need to be reminded of which problems I’m referring to.)

Now is not the time to give in to despair. Now is the time to stay engaged, informed, and prepared for what’s happening now and what’s on the horizon—not just for our own sake, but for the sake of those we’re responsible for, and for those who look to us to set an example.

I’m talking about our loved ones, children, and grandchildren—and for the business owners reading, our customers, clients, communities, and employees. 

It’s that last group I’d like to focus on in this article. Your employees are counting on you for clear-eyed leadership and guidance during difficult times. Remember: you not only serve as chief executive or chief decision-maker, but chief communicator as well.

Nobody expects you to have all the answers. No expert or team of experts has all the answers. But that shouldn’t stop you from communicating authentically, openly, and pragmatically with the people you lead. Here’s how to communicate with employees during times of tension.

Handling different kinds of crises

From wildfires to public health emergencies, cyberattacks to traumatic personal events, different crises require different communication strategies and approaches. Regardless of the source of tension your team faces, however, there are a few general steps you can take to keep people safe, informed, and united.

It starts with recognizing the potential crises your team may face. Here are a few examples of common sources of tension any business owner should prepare a communication plan for:

Employee communication during extreme weather events

The climate crisis is a very real problem that we all must work toward addressing. Between a higher number of superstorms, major temperature fluctuations, and a string of massive wildfires, vulnerable communities across the globe have been devastated by extreme weather.

Just as critical as enacting a business continuity plan is providing support and relief for employees who may be impacted by extreme weather. A hurricane, fire, flood, earthquake, drought, or other extreme event can cause someone to lose their home, possessions, vehicle, or loved ones. Be sensitive to the needs of your employees and consider ways you can support them before, during, and after a natural disaster.

Learn what you can do about climate change.

Employee communication during cyberattacks

Cybercrime is currently on the rise across the US, and around the world. Cyber criminals can target anyone, and anyone (even top-level executives) can fall for a phishing attack, scam, or another form of fraud.

Has your IT department developed the proper tools and resources for your employees to prepare for a potential attack? The tactics cybercriminals use are constantly evolving and adapting, which makes continued communication between all departments critical.

Get practical cybersecurity tips.

Employee communication during times of political division

It seems the one thing we can all agree on these days is that politically, we’re more divided than ever. Among members of your team, political polarization may threaten to fracture working relationships. However, a ban on political talk can leave employees feeling as though their voices are being silenced.  

As chief communicator, you have a responsibility to set a tone and define the culture of your workplace. Respect, empathy, and free expression can’t necessarily be taught, but you can find ways to encourage those values in the workplace while discouraging cruelty and bullying.

Read HR perspectives about managing political discussions in the workplace.

Employee communication during times of community unrest

Civil protests are woven into the fabric of the United States—we’re a land of free expression and grassroots political action. And protests have happened more frequently in recent years as people throughout the country have reckoned with marginalized communities’ experiences throughout history.

These events can bring people together and serve as fulcrums of growth and healing. Unfortunately, they can also sometimes result in feelings of insecurity or uncertainty, or even erupt in violence. HR expert and consultant Kimberly Prescott recommends that employers do the following to “responsibly navigate these situations” and “ensure employee concerns are acknowledged without evolving into open conflict or internal disruption”:

  • Set the tone for appropriate behavior in the workplace.
  • Communicate and acknowledge the unrest and communicate the organization’s position.
  • Communicate policy and process for conflict resolution and problem solving amongst employees.
  • Visit your business continuity plan for civil unrest.
  • Partner with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Read “Civil Unrest and Employees: How to Manage During Difficult Times.”

Employee communication amid threats of violence

Unexpected threats of violence, such as active shooter events, are scenarios most of us would rather not think about. Unfortunately, these nightmares do happen, and all businesses need to take steps to prepare their employees. Your staff may groan at regular drills and training seminars, but the lessons they learn could save their lives. Domestic violence support for employees is equally important. 

Keep in mind that instances of violence in the news, particularly when it’s localized to your region, may result in employees experiencing heightened levels of stress and fear. Make sure you have employee assistance resources available for those who may need them.

Explore the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s resources for preventing workplace violence

Employee communication about discrimination

Discrimination of any kind has no place in any business. Again, however, that doesn’t mean total silence is the best policy.  Make sure employees understand it’s important to report instances of discrimination they experience or witness, and feel comfortable raising their concerns. Check in with your employees regularly and remind them of your company’s values and anti-discrimination policies, and make sure everyone feels safe and empowered to ensure they and their teammates receive the respect all of us deserve.

Learn a few of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s tips for preventing discrimination in the workplace.

Employee communication concerning mental health struggles and trauma

Millions of people live with mental conditions that interfere with their ability to live and work the way they want to. These issues range from stress-related burnout to anxiety, depression, addiction and substance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other disorders. Mental health conditions can affect anyone. Those who seek respite and recovery require assistance and support from the most important people in their lives, which often include co-workers and supervisors. And some people with mental health conditions require workplace accommodations, which employers are legally responsible for providing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Now and then, employees experience traumatic personal events that require accommodations of their own—time off, for example. Trauma can also lead to or exacerbate other mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Familiarize yourself with your responsibilities as an employer and keep an open mind.

Learn more about mental health.

Employee communication about health hazards

As of the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a global concern. Mask mandates and social distancing protocols vary from state to state and country to country, making the situation an unclear and confusing one, especially for employees and employers.

Now is the time to communicate your plans and procedures to your team and gather their feedback so that they can organize their lives accordingly. What safety precautions have you implemented? Should work continue in-person or remotely? Carefully consider your employees’ concerns and questions, and weigh that feedback with your decisions. 

Explore free resources for business owners during the pandemic.

How to maintain healthy employee communication when times get tough

Each of those sources of tension listed above requires a unique approach to effectively handle. That said, there are a few general things you can do right now to prepare your business and your employees for most kinds of crises:

1. Create and maintain an internal information center.

This is a place where your employees can access the resources and tools they need before, during, and after a crisis.

2. Make sure your emergency communication systems are secure.

Make sure they’re operational, running, updated, and working in harmony with your other systems—and make sure to test them regularly!

3. Have tools ready to keep your employees up-to-date during a crisis.

The most effective systems provide useful, relevant information on time—and don’t bombard recipients with unnecessary updates. After all, you don’t want your employees to tune you out.

4. Equip your managers with the right training in advance.

Managers are leaders in their own right. Are the managers within your organization prepared with the necessary tools to step up when needed?

5. CEOs, address your organization directly.

Whenever possible, have the senior leadership in your organization deliver updates to employees. If your workforce is remote, consider filming and sharing videos to convey the necessary information.

6. Keep your communication consistent.

Your employees should never have any doubts or confusion regarding what they need to do during a crisis, or the values of your company and your stance on important issues.

7. Communicate your commitment to making a change.

Don’t simply pay lip service to the fight for change and equality. Show your employees the receipts. Tell them exactly what the company is doing to make a difference in the world.

8. Encourage employees to donate or take action.

Either within or outside of your organization, direct your employees to causes they may be interested in taking part in.

9. Keep up a positive and hopeful attitude when possible.

It may seem impossible at times to foster a positive and uplifting culture while being realistic about the current state of the world. But things will never improve if we all throw our hands up and say, “I give up.”

Instead, provide a roadmap for your employees who have been experiencing heightened levels of stress. Remind them that they have the strength to stay informed, engaged, and provide a quality service all at once. It all starts with a workplace environment in which every voice is heard and every perspective is taken into account.

Explore Ruby’s free business resources.