When the economy is bad, stick to the fundamentals

Your company may be shuttering up due to the global economic downturn. Or maybe your organization has remained largely unaffected. Most likely, the majority of us are at some point in between, and now is when the effective employee communication foundation we have laid makes all the difference.

You have been to seminars, read journals, listened to mentors, and you have put into practice what you learned: Strategic communication plans engage employees in the workplace, connect with marketplace realities, and reflect your corporate culture with measurable results.

These fundamentals may help ensure that you keep your job during a recession, and you might even hear "thank you" from an executive or an appreciative comment from an employee. Stay focused on the following tenets.

Acknowledge the realities of both the workplace and the marketplace
Financial uncertainty is real, and the competitive landscape is changing--rapidly. Even if you have had ongoing dialogue about markets, competitors and customers, your employees may wonder how the latest news they read and hear is affecting their company. And they will ask "though not necessarily out loud" whether this will affect them personally.

Employees are experiencing a spectrum of emotions. They are feeling shocked, angry, depressed, scared, confused and dazed. What you don't want them to feel is uninformed. To varying degrees, people want information to help them sort through their thoughts, and that's where you as a communicator can help. Explain what is happening in the marketplace from the perspective of your company and industry. Information fosters understanding, and conversation leads to shared understanding.

If ever there were a time to listen to the grapevine, this is it. Rumors usually contain a kernel of truth, and isolating those aspects that have been exaggerated and contorted in the retelling will reveal what issues employees are attempting to clarify for themselves or that they consider important. People hope to hear consensus in their grapevine conversations. You can seed those conversations with facts.

Whether the possibility of layoffs is real or imagined--and the truth is, you probably don't even know--think ahead about communicating with those who survive layoffs, the people who remain on the job full of fear, denial and guilt.

Keep your communication tethered to corporate strategy
You have a communication plan, so stick to it, making appropriate adjustments as needed. One way this threatening economy can seem manageable is through the strength of others. Storytelling helps people envision what to do to move forward. Is customer service uppermost in the corporate strategy? Tell stories about employees serving customers in a volatile market. Is the strategy based on improved collaboration? Heartwarming stories about teamwork can soothe rollercoaster emotions. Stories are not just reflections but also a basis for shaping the future.

Employees want to trust their leaders, especially in troubling times, yet this is not the same as expecting leaders to have all the answers. Not even the wisest CEO knows exactly what will happen next, but he or she can give perspective and context.

In other words, there's never nothing to say. Explore, acknowledge or reinforce existing messages.

You and your senior management should keep answering the question: What do employees need to know to address the strategy at this time?

At the operational level, you can help guide managers in answering: What do employees need to do to pull off the strategy as we define it now?

Take responsibility for turning ambiguity into a comfortable acceptance that we're all going to make this work.

If strategy is something you haven't communicated much because you thought employees were uninterested, this is a perfect time to introduce it. Employees care now. They want to keep their jobs.

Measure results to show the value of communication programs
Historically, budget-tightening meant trouble for employee communicators and their programs. How will we fare in this economic downturn? Our measurement results will be put to the test. Have we made crystal clear the strategic and operational value of effective employee communication? Whether or not you are asked to do so, evaluate and report the outcomes of your communication program.

If you conduct ongoing polls, take the pulse of employees to see how well they understand how the failing economy is affecting your company. Reframe your communication if necessary.

If money isn't available for formal measurement right now, take the no-cost route by gathering a group of employees for a discussion or making a few phone calls. For an unthreatening entrance into the conversation, say: I'm going to be communicating about the economy and our company; what do you hear your colleagues talking about or asking about?

Have a deep understanding of the corporate culture
It's important for employees to know what will endure through this crisis. Yes, there will be change, and yes, it's uncomfortable. Just as people turn to comfort food, employees want comforting messages for strength to move on. Communicate what is unchanging, such as corporate values, so that people can hold on to something that provides a sense of familiarity and security. Find balance between the bottom line and higher inspiration for your audience.

It's tough to be the cheerleader all the time, though. Fear is big and ugly, and you are not immune, so acknowledge your own emotions.

What does the future hold? It's a vexing question as old as humankind. Some people will be disillusioned and anxious. Others will be optimistic and invigorated by the challenge. One person will lock their doors for protection. Another will take a walk in the sunshine. In any event, life will go on.

If, despite implementing effective employee communication, you find yourself without a job in this downturn, at least you will have proven skills for your next job. You will have gained firsthand experience in using these bedrock employee communication practices.

This article was published online in CW Bulletin December 2008, Vol. 6, Issue 12 by the International Association of Business Communicators.