Preparing for the worst

2010

On April 20, hours before the explosion of the now-infamous Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, BP shares traded in the U.S. were worth $60.48. During trading on June 28 they plunged to as low as $26.75, a slide that wiped out $105 billion in market capitalization.

The world was then caught up in a frenzy of accusation and counter-accusation whilst governments pondered the moral, financial and environmental ramifications of the disaster. Meanwhile, the BP management team were faced with having to deal with these accusations of negligence and financial irresponsibility whilst trying to solve an engineering nightmare at the bottom of the ocean.

But what about employee morale? No one seemed to pay any attention to the possible long-term consequences a collapse in morale might have for the giant corporation.

Whilst all around were focusing on shoring up the oil and money spill, there was an equally damaging - if less environmentally challenging - issue at hand, namely how the BP employees felt about the company they were working for. And pride was probably not one of the sentiments at the top of the list.

BP are not the first and certainly won't be the last major corporation to face global negative and hostile attitudes. Yet in most cases the human factor gets swept aside to allow for more pressing issues to be addressed.

The fallout in terms of human impact is hard to calculate and it can take years to really come to a head. But the key is to acknowledge that there will be a negative impact come what may and that the company needs to act rapidly if it is to minimise the damage.

But in most cases, damage management only plays lip service to examining the effect that a very public 'disgrace' has on its employees. So having a strategy in place in preparation for just such an eventuality is good practice, as is reviewing the strategy on a regular basis as new potential scenarios emerge.

One of the key elements worth looking at is how employees are likely to react to a given crisis. Analysing what can happen to them during such a period is a crucial but often overlooked exercise. There is real evidence of employees experiencing a loss of confidence on a personal as well as professional level. The effect of a disaster like this can be all pervasive, a lifestyle 'rocker'.

Rather than rallying together, the opposite can often occur. Individuals close themselves off from anything to do with the corporation and want to distance themselves from colleagues. As a consequence they may put less energy and creativity in their jobs just when it is most needed.

That's why it is so important that organisations quickly start to measure this 'human cost', establishing how badly their employees have been effected and how deep the impact may be. Confidence and credibility are the first to suffer; it takes years to build a brand name and only moments to shoot it down in flames.

Employee disaffection is often best handled from an outside-looking-in perspective. Taking issues out of their usual context and re-evaluating them generally throws up a clearer picture of what needs to take priority. Crafting solutions to address each of these then becomes clearer.

Unlike the usual corporate research which reveals those areas that highlight dissatisfaction, often in these situations the complaints about processes, products or strategy point in an entirely different direction.

The research required in this situation needs to be conducted with different criteria allowing the root of the issues to be understood not just by the researcher but by the employees themselves. The re-engagement of employees needs to include meaningful opportunities for them to feedback and interact with Senior Management. A general newsletter or 'Meet the CEO workshop' are not going to be effective.

The focus should be on implementing a series of well-constructed communication programmes which are aligned with the employees' emotional triggers. This is a more subtle and time consuming strategy, yet it is the only way to get a real sense of employees' emotional state after bad news has hit. It also allows for a team to define and disseminate the key messages that will help re-engage and motivate, alleviate negative attitudes and redress the situation.

That's not to say that the process is a panacea, but by providing context, outlining a realistic future and encouraging feedback and discussion, the scene is set for giving employees a sense of value and a real belief that their concerns are being addressed.

Ensuring the communications objectives align the employee's emotional attitude with what the company is striving to stand for reminds all concerned that there are positive elements which can be rebuilt. So it's important to focus on these and deal with the negatives in a less emotional and more matter-of-fact way.

Empathising with employees is the key here, but it is not simply a question of suggesting that "all is fine now" and expecting them to return to the way it was before. Rebuilding confidence and engagement has to be done in a way that is relevant to individuals; it shouldn't be seen as a corporate gesture, but rather as a human one.

Defining the right people to do this is just as vital. Every corporation will have natural leaders, those to whom others gravitate. These individuals may not be heads of their departments or hold senior positions, but they share a much more subtle quality: they radiate confidence. It is these 'champions' that are identified by the communication programme. And they need to be nurtured because they are key to re-igniting, re-motivating and re-engaging those around them.

Finally, there is no point in ignoring or covering up the real and grave problems the corporation may be facing. Instead the focus should be on how, as a group, every single employee can re-build their pride in both job and company. Giving a real goal and outlining manageable objectives should move the focus away from their own personal woes and regain their emotional commitment.

About The Author

Nick Eve
Nick Eve

Nick Eve is Managing Director of UK-based communications consultancy, Pumphouse. He has more than 30 years experience devising and delivering strategic face to face communications.

Older Comments

I think these words from sociologist Diane Vaughan may help to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article 'The people in the US as well as the courts of justice see the world as the result of individual failures. They think that if you find the individual responsible, you would solve the problems. But the problem is that if you take the responsible people out, new ones will take the job and social factors will just reproduce the behaviours and replicate the problems. America is a culture where individual achievement is everything. We consider that if you don’t achieve, you are responsible for your own failure. So looking beyond individual responsibility, to seeing what’s going on in the social context, how it works, what are the beliefs, the common culture, the political economy, etc.. is something we sociologists believe explains human behavior. So it is important to target the real root causes when things go wrong, whether we are talking about relationships, shuttle accidents, or terrorist attacks.We want to know why people make the décisions that they do. When it comes to organization mistake, misconduct, or disaster, the blame usually goes to low level workers and middle managers. Blaming them works for the organization. It deflects attention from top administrators who make major décisions about goals and resources that affect organization cultures, and falls upon workers, affected their actions. I call this « the trickle down effect ». To show the connection between élite actions, as they affect organizations and harmful outcomes shifts our understanding of what to do about the dark side of organization. And this at the core of public sociology. [Even if] it happens to be demonstrated « by accidents ».

Janet Howd