Communicate with clarity in times of uncertainty

Employees grow nervous when change looms. Here’s how to keep them calm even when you don’t have all the answers.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all—but what about when employees have questions and you don’t have all the answers? Is that also a time to say nothing? The short answer is no.

Human resources departments face the challenge of communicating uncertainty to employees every day. A leadership change, an upcoming merger or a tweak to health benefits all generate questions from employees, but often not a lot of timely, substantive answers.

With limited answers, or partial responses that may not be ready for public consumption, should human resources departments simply say nothing at all?

It may seem easier, more practical, or safer to remain silent until everything is ready to be presented, but not communicating in times of uncertainty can lead to fear, mistrust and low morale in your workforce. In the absence of official communication, employees talk. Rumors start and workers become disengaged.

How can human resources and internal communications teams prevent this discord before it starts? An effective communication and engagement strategy is a good place to start:

1. Overcommunicate, even if just to say you don’t have any information.

In times of uncertainty, people want to know when the big questions will be answered. Uncertainty heightens anxiety.

HR and internal communications teams can alleviate angst by continually overcommunicating, even if just to say, “We know many of you still have questions. This is what we know now, and we will continue to give you additional updates as soon as we have them.”

Most importantly, if you say you are going to give an update next week, or at the next staff meeting, make sure you do. There’s nothing worse than overpromising and underdelivering on information.

2. Provide real opportunities for engagement.

When faced with a big change, we all want to know how it will affect us personally. That’s why one-sided communication from the top leaders of an organization is not enough.

Executives, HR personnel and internal communicators should give employees time, space and opportunities to ask questions about potential scenarios and issues on the horizon. Focus groups, coffee talks, one-on-one meetings and even virtual meetings with the opportunity to ask questions anonymously are all valid options—just make sure they are authentic opportunities.

You’ll cause rifts and lose credibility if you ignore feedback or give one group of employees more voice than another.

3. Think beyond email.

HR departments and internal communicators should complement email with other types of communication to ensure their messages resonate. This is especially true for organizations with workers in different locations, time zones or shift schedules.

Internal communications should look and feel like external marketing campaigns and make use of multiple channels. The employee intranet, video messages, postcards, signage around the office and staff meetings should all supplement email and include ongoing communication about new developments.

Change and uncertainty are never easy to manage. It’s natural to resist change and fear the unknown. All of these factors are multiplied in the workplace, where changes have the potential to affect everyone’s jobs and the way we earn our livelihood.

A well-designed internal communications campaign can help employees through times of uncertainty and change, and increase morale and engagement at the same time.

Lisa Laine Miller and James Gabriel Brown are the principals and co-founders of LaineGabriel, an agency specializing in internal marketing campaigns.

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