Engaging employees during times of organizational change

Your work goes a long way toward righting the ship.

Yesterday, Capital One announced plans to purchase Discover in an all-stock deal worth $35.3 billion, according to CNN. The deal is not expected to close until late 2024 or early 2025, leaving employees at these companies in a long period of uncertainty.

It’s the latest reminder of why, in today’s world of work, communicators need to be prepared for anything. Your organization could face an acquisition, bankruptcy or major leadership change. With any such shift at a company, the information that communicators provide to leaders and managers breaks the news and navigates how the fallout will resonate with your workforce.

Though the road forward might seem unclear during these times of upheaval, there are some best practices you can lean on to ensure smoother sailing during the sometimes rough seas of change.

How leadership and channel selection inform the ongoing process 

During these times, employees will inevitably look to leaders for guidance on what comes next. It’s on you to set those leaders up for success.

Kevin Berchou, head of internal communications at M&T Bank, explained how comms pros should advise leaders on the next steps during any change scenario.

“Start at the top of the house and tell that leadership team what’s going on,” Berchou said. “If the leadership team doesn’t have the chance to fully digest how the change impacts people across the organization, it can be really difficult to get them to support whatever comms efforts you’re asking them to support.”

You should also seek out as many touchpoints with employees as possible during these times. That might even involve getting leaders who are sometimes a little more reserved to speak up.

Rebekah Fawcett, senior vice president and head of enterprise communications at U.S. Bank, added that communicators need to set leaders up for sustained interaction with employees throughout the change, rather than just a pronouncement from the pulpit with no further dialogue. People are going to have questions and leaders need to be there to address them. If your company was announcing a bankruptcy or a merger, wouldn’t you want to hear what’s coming next from the top of the ladder?

“When I’m guiding executives through this kind of thing, I try to get them to look at it as not just a moment in time sort of thing, but as an ongoing process to reach lots of people in different ways at different times,” Fawcett said. Varying the channels that change announcements come from can ensure maximum impact.

“Look at the channels you can use to leverage leaders, managers and relatable peers throughout the change process,” she said.

Activating managers to ease the uncertainty

Don’t forget about managers and the important role they play in getting information to employees. Look to your managers to engender trust with employees as announcements are made.

“Research consistently shows that employees consider their direct managers the most trusted source for company information, so a strong change communications program should arm managers at many levels with consistent information to share with their teams,” said Lisa Claybon, vice president of corporate affairs at a global foodservice company.

“Where possible, brief senior managers on the news before a broad corporate announcement so they’re not caught off guard and can work with leadership to carry the key messages through to their employees with even more credibility.”

Considering personal impacts

Though M&As might seemingly only impact the finance department, these roles can have personal impacts on people. Staffing might change, people might be let go, and comms need to bring humanity into the process. Keep this in mind when crafting messaging — tone matters, as does the messenger. The companies affected only exist because of the people within them.

“While a significant change such as a merger or bankruptcy is transactional to the bottom line, the actions have a very personal impact on employees,” Claybon said. “It’s important not to lose sight of human nature.”

“Think about the tone of the messages, consider when to use first, second and third-person in writing style, and seek opportunities for leaders to add in a personal anecdote or perspective where it makes sense,” She added.

For example, if an organization like Discover went through a merger and a group of employees on a team were let go, the remaining employees will have a lot of questions about what that means for their path forward, their own job security, and more. An impersonal announcement won’t sow the seeds for success. Cascade information down to your managers, empowering them to make things personal and be transparent, and you’ll stand a better chance of truly reaching people and moving forward in lockstep.

Navigating these times of change is a puzzle of sorts — and you should create a road map and identify your goals along the way and identify new ones as they arise, always keeping clear messaging and a reciprocal dialogue as your north star.

“The best communicators always have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” Berchou said. “Two-way communication is so important when there are big changes. You can’t just promulgate from your position.”

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.


One Response to “Engaging employees during times of organizational change”

    Lucia del Pino says:

    Sean, thanks for highlighting the uncertainty and stress employees face during organizational changes with this post. It’s crucial to have clear, honest communication from leaders to navigate these times. In this matter, I think Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) can help identify key influencers to spread positive messages and support. How do you think ONA could fit into this communication strategy? I await your response!

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