If we stay or if we go – Embrace internal comms while others lose their heads over Brexit

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Voted to stay, voted to go. Deal or No Deal. Whatever you did, whatever you believe in, there is no doubt that the events of 2016 until now are momentous and will be discussed for many years to come. Simply acknowledging we’re at a time of great change and immense uncertainty when there’s no clear road ahead doesn’t help British businesses or the people living the here and now of Brexit.

With the vast majority of EU workers in the UK affected in some way by Brexit, business leaders and HR teams need to dig deep and support their employees. It’s a crisis, and whether your beloved colleague has been sent a 60 page document to fill in if she wants to remain, or had some newly emboldened racist shout at him to ‘go home’, people are feeling pretty bad. Businesses will need to put aside the operational issue that people are unlikely to be at their most productive during this period of disruption. We must ask ourselves, just as humans not as businessmen or women, when many are feeling disheartened and unloved by their adopted countrymen, how can companies support their employees and be the voice of reason while the politicians seem to be doing the worst job possible?

Last year a C-suite survey across a variety of sectors, by Censuswide, found that 80 per cent of C-level execs believed that internal comms had become more important over the last 12 months. That is undoubtedly true. Notably, 95 per cent+ said employee engagement was important to their business. As Gavin Megaw, MD of Hanover Communications said at the time, “No one can tell you what will happen to your business in the future, but the one thing that is for certain is that you’ll need your people on side.” Brexit is one of those times.

Smart businesses tend to have some kind of crisis plan in place for dealing with real emergencies. Is Brexit a crisis? Unless you’re selling canned fruit and tin hats, almost certainly. And while a crisis communications plan is normally prepared for such events as natural disasters, security breaches, media scandals or acts of terrorism, businesses also need to plan for times of uncertainty, when something completely out of their hands affects their work lives and workforce. With recent headlines such as the Honda closure in Swindon, Dyson leaving the UK for Singapore, Nissan’s cancelled production plans in Sunderland, employees may have concerns and questions about the organisation’s plans for a no deal Brexit. Don’t let them turn to other sources to get their information. False or misleading information will only make things worse.

Unfortunately, crisis plans are best produced in quiet times, which businesses don’t currently have the luxury of. One area that we can all excel in at the moment though is transparent comms - even when some of the news is ugly. When you keep employees in the loop, they become vital partners in managing a crisis and helping the company survive and thrive. With social media, employees will likely be communicating about Brexit, and what they say can have an extensive reach. Think of them as an extension of your public relations team in an emergency. This means whatever you tell them must be consistent and as accurate as possible. It’s times like these where companies need to take their internal communications seriously.

1) Be transparent and strategic

Brexit is more than a bump in the road, and it is still hard to predict what will happen. What we do know though is that EU migrants make up for over 20 per cent of the labour force, across 18 British industries, and that’s significant.

  • Be strategic. Don’t just jump into action without first pausing to make sure your information is as accurate as possible. The last thing you want to do is put out inaccurate messages.
  • Get prepared. If you’re prepared, you’ll be in an excellent position to start getting information out to employees even if you don’t have the exact answers. Remember, you want employees to trust the authority of your messaging, and not gather information from unreliable sources.
  • Be consistent. Update them regularly so you know they consistently have the most up-to-date information.
  • Keep it simple. Draft a simple message to employees that answers or addresses their most important questions to the best of your ability. Your top priority should be to produce factual, consistent, and practical messaging on how Brexit or indeed a no-deal, will impact your business.

All you can be is open and transparent with your workforce. Fudging the truth won’t lead to a good outcome for leaders, employees, or customers, no matter the current climate. People want the businesses they work for to be authentic and open. You will command greater respect in the longer run by being upfront and addressing the elephant in the room.

2) Reach all employees

Employees who feel disconnected from the business and don’t understand why decisions are being made are less likely to engage with new initiatives—which makes those initiatives more likely to fail. If employees aren’t getting relevant information, they may not understand or even know about company-wide business goals.

Ultimately, the best internal communicators understand their audience and support employee engagement that drives desired business outcomes. And a more connected workforce is a catalyst for improved business results. Demonstrating a level of empathy with those who are frustrated or worried during this period will also pay dividends in the long run.

Different employees consume content differently. Some employees will check email regularly, others only have access to their smartphones or tablets during work, some may prefer a phone call or a notice on your intranet. One method of communication will not be enough. You need to meet your employees where they are, and this includes having a plan in place in case your primary means of communication is not available.

Communicating may include:

  • setting up special channels on your branded mobile app that can be activated at a moment’s notice,
  • drafting holding statements so you aren’t preparing them when you should already be disseminating information,
  • choosing a point person for each scenario, and
  • setting up human resources to be able to effectively communicate with employees.

3) Empower employees by giving them a voice

Listen to the voices of your employees – sooner rather than later. It’s up to leaders to listen and act.  The higher you get in an organisation the more selective your view becomes, and the more danger there is that you’re in an echo chamber. Leaders don’t necessarily get a broad spectrum of feedback about what’s going on in a company at every level. You must let your employees have a voice, so you have a clear view of what’s happening at all levels of your company, for all employee segments. Don’t fear it, empower people.

4) Do not tolerate bad apples

Brexit has caused a huge amount of bad feeling in the UK (and elsewhere). Families have fallen out, and long-term friendships have been pulled apart by the unexpected results of 2016. So, it’s no great surprise that tempers will run high and opinions on why Britain should or shouldn’t leave the EU will continue to cause a clash or two.

As a business leader you have the responsibility to create a safe, productive environment in which all your employees can work and thrive. Don’t tolerate bad behaviour or tasteless banter during this time. While employees will have different opinions encourage a level of understanding and support across your workforce. In return, you could create a place where people feel safe and wanted. Here’s hoping.

Cyrus Gilbert-Rolfe, MD, EMEA, SocialChorus
Image source: Shutterstock/JMiks