The best way to prevent a crisis? Employee feedback

Listening to and involving employees in company issues could save your company from a deadly PR disaster.

Who knows more about what’s going on inside a home: The people actually living within its walls, or neighbors, friends, Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts?

The people who live there, of course.

The same goes for an organization: Is it the employees who are best-informed about the company, or the customers, investors, regulators and the media?

There again it is the employees, at some level, who know the story first and better than “outsiders” do.

Internal stakeholders (read: employees) know what’s going on in the company. They also care—a lot—because their sustenance depends on things going well at work.

It is not only stupid, but organizationally suicidal to ignore what employees have to say. Don’t punish them for constructively and appropriately trying to communicate information that can save the organization from itself.

When I was a kid I lived in a house with a winding staircase. You could sit at the top of the stairs and listen to what was going on downstairs without anyone seeing you. When my parents argued over things—like where we would live or what type of school I should go to—you can bet I sat at the top of the stairs and listened very hard.

In this way, employees are exactly the same as kids living in their parents’ (employer’s) house. They want to know what’s going to happen. They watch for signals that affect their safety, stability and future.

Not every employee is passionately engaged with the company’s mission. Not everyone cares about doing a good job. The day-to-day news that affects the organization often flies right by employees. But three things worry them deeply, and these are the things you can guarantee they will be attentive to:

  • The financial stability of the organization: Is it going under?
  • Their standing within the organization: Are their jobs in jeopardy?
  • The reputation of the organization: Are their good names at risk because they are associated with the organization?

If you look at these things closely, they are exactly what most CEOs worry about as well. It would be smart for leaders to involve employees in monitoring and reporting on these matters, but not just because it would boost morale. Employee warnings can be an early alert system to help avert crises before they blow up, mainstream and social media rake the organization over the coals, and damage is done.

On a practical level, obtaining this kind of feedback from employees has to be simple, real-time and available both in-person and electronically. Standards like “open door” policies, town halls, two-way email feedback systems, etc., are good, but the problem is that they’re difficult to standardize, make consistent and monitor when your organization is extremely large, complex and geographically distributed.

On the other hand, an online message board does a great job of handling this. Here’s how to implement one:

1. Establish a central, anonymous tip line where employees can report anything they feel is important—whether that’s fraud, waste and abuse, inaccurate or slanderous news coverage, or even a process that could be improved.

2. Publish tips to a central message board where others can comment and/or vote on their usefulness. Use a moderator to filter out extremely sensitive or confidential material, but should be investigated. The moderator can also delete spam or slanderous tips as well as generate productive discussion in the repository.

3. Enable easy access to the message board for employees who work from home so that they have the privacy and anonymity they need to report items of importance.

4. Reward employees for submitting tips that uncover misconduct, correct a dangerous situation, etc.

5. Train employees extensively to behave appropriately with this sensitive material. Publish a clear and simple policy that is prominently displayed.

Of course, every organization operates within its own constraints, and you will need to make sure that establishing any communication tool or mechanism abides by applicable laws, regulations and rules. (This blog is not a substitute for obtaining the appropriate advice.)

Executives commonly worry that providing this kind of tool will give destructive people license to destroy morale, but the reality is quite the opposite. Usually it is the employees who care the most about the organization and its mission who engage in these types of forums.

And you know what? If you don’t give people a constructive way to share the problems they see, they will find a way to do it anyway. A way that the organization doesn’t control, can’t have any input in, and may well regret because people will say things that put others in a bad light without giving them an opportunity to explain and defend themselves.

I believe that 90 percent of the time (the other 10 percent being an unavoidable accident or disaster), crises can be prevented before they start.

Nuclear disasters. Oil spills. Car defects. Medicine recalls.

Most crises are not a surprise. They are the result of a long-term dysfunctional pattern, process or practice. Anybody with half a brain can see them coming, but the question is whether we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Do we have the courage to accept the nasty truth from a messenger who isn’t necessarily favored, or high in status?

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a branding professional specializing in cutting-edge and cost effective integrated marketing solutions. She blogs at Think Brand First, where this article originally ran. All opinions expressed are her own. This article previously ran on Ragan.com in June 2011.

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