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Leading Effectively Through Crises

The CHRO’s role in guiding organizational support and response

A people leader’s role in managing talent and supporting the overall wellbeing of their organization is challenging on a typical day, but throw in a health crisis, socio-political or economic instability, or a natural disaster, and the job seems almost impossible. Yet, in recent years, people leaders are grappling with at least one, if not often many, of these crisis scenarios at any given time while juggling their normal responsibilities, and it has put their leadership skills to the test like never before.

Absent a playbook to manage every unique crisis, people leaders often lean on the support and insights of their peers to help formulate their organizational response and strategy. A conversation between people leaders in The Circle in 2023 – amidst the backdrop of continued economic and social unrest and the lingering effects of the pandemic – revealed some essential takeaways about how to lead effectively during a crisis.

Deciding When and When Not to Respond

When a crisis occurs, all eyes fall on the CHRO or senior people leader to drive the organization’s response. When there are firm-wide business or operational disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the Silicon Valley bank crisis, people leaders know they’ll need to craft a proactive communication strategy to address business continuity issues or employee concerns. Similarly, a crisis that results in a reduction in force or changes to the company’s workplace policies often requires a multi-pronged communication strategy (i.e., town halls, emails, and ongoing interaction at the leadership and managerial levels).

However, the definition of a crisis has expanded in recent years, and there has been a growing expectation among employees for employers to react to external political and social issues. These scenarios are where people leaders have to be more nuanced in their response, as they have to balance support for their employees’ wellbeing and ability to perform their jobs with how an organizational response might elicit backlash or even hurt employee morale. Some people leaders in the conversation said that their company has taken the hardline approach of not responding to any external issues. In contrast, others assess them on a case-by-case basis. 

Overall, the consensus was that people leaders can benefit from creating a rubric that outlines when the company should respond to an issue and defines the guardrails. For example, a company might decide to respond to a social or political issue if it directly impacts employees living in a specific location. In these situations, people leaders agreed that it is often best to use neutral language that doesn’t alienate or offend certain employees. One CHRO noted that a downside to a selective response rubric is that it can either create a never-ending and disruptive cycle of responding to new crises as they occur or create potential internal backlash if they neglect to respond to a specific issue.

Using a Values-Based Strategy

When deciding if and how to respond to a crisis, people leaders agreed that the response needs to be tightly aligned with the company’s core values. “Your company values should help define when a response is necessary,” said one CHRO. “And if they don’t, it may be time to review and refresh those values to ensure they align with CEO and employee expectations.”

One VP of People was able to partner with their Head of PR to create a flowchart that outlined when the company should publicly comment on a crisis or social issue based on their shared values; this approach not only informed a repeatable communication strategy but also helped level-set with employees the company’s approach to addressing external news stories. Another leader noted that their company’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion clarified the importance of creating spaces for employees to share and discuss their feelings about certain issues rather than waiting for a company-driven response.

Ultimately, a values-driven approach to crisis response is something that HR leaders will have to champion and likely spend some time educating the rest of the C-suite on; however, it is becoming an increasingly important part of attracting and retaining talent.

Building Resources for Managers & Employees

While the head of HR may lead crisis response, it is a shared responsibility throughout the organization. One CHRO said that a top-down leadership response during a crisis would only yield moderate results. Instead, managers need to be equipped with the resources to support their employees, and employees need to seek support for themselves as well.” 

To maintain a healthy and resilient workforce, organizations have been investing in expanded support services for their employees through wellbeing days, council sessions with mental health professionals, meditation apps, etc. However, as continued economic volatility threatens to slash HR budgets, evaluating the efficacy and value of each of these programs will be critical. Still, people leaders agreed that it is important to use every crisis to remind employees of the mental health resources available to them and to show empathy. At the same time, it’s important to create opportunities for employees to stay connected with their peers and perhaps even temporarily disconnected from the external events causing them anxiety.

The Takeaway:

A crisis, or several crises simultaneously, can put an enormous added strain on HR leaders. Staying attuned to the sentiments of employees and the company’s values can help leaders formulate a strategy for when and how to respond to a crisis and ensure that the rest of the organization is equipped to help amplify that response.

Apply to join the Circle to participate in conversations like this one with a private community of C-suite executives who regularly give and get support.

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