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It has certainly been a unique start to the year with a number of challenges already arising from our terrible bushfires and natural disasters in other parts of the world to the rapid spread of the coronavirus and a number of political and economic changes globally.

Naturally this impacts businesses both from a people but also financial perspective and in the face of so much uncertainty; employees look to their leaders to help them make sense of it, understand the impact for them, provide a clear sense of direction and provide confidence that they are protecting their interests – all in a very timely fashion.

Yet, how can our leaders rise to this challenge when so much is still unknown and they are unable to personally influence outcomes, let alone control them? It can feel daunting, overwhelming and almost too big to deal with, but can’t be avoided because we need to protect stakeholder interests and their economic security (especially customers and employees). And quite frankly it actually feels really uncomfortable for most people to not take action when a crisis arises. How can leaders balance the tension between caring deeply and supporting employees through such external crises but also maintain their fiduciary responsibilities (and therefore reduce risks to their employee’s job security longer term)?

Whilst specific responses will of course vary based on the issue being faced, the anticipated impact on the organisation and it’s people and your organisational culture; there are a few key principles to keep in mind.

Of course in the event of an urgent issue such as an earthquake, health epidemic, travel disaster etc. that could affect the safety of your people, an immediate response is required. Firstly, ensure that all of your employees and their families are accounted for and support them for their return if they are travelling, whether for work or pleasure. Equally if they have been through an affected area, follow the government and health guidelines in terms of helping them return. Hopefully your organisation has a crisis response team in place to deal with such issues (and a well maintained HR information system with up-to-date employee and next of kin contact details). If not, set one up and ensure you run a desktop exercise at least annually for a myriad of issues such as the above plus key customer risks such as data breaches etc. Equally, for businesses that require employees to travel, there are travel support providers and insurances that should be in place for such issues.

Once these most critical matters are dealt with and / or in the event of a slower paced matter facing your business such as Brexit, US elections etc. your specific response will be nuanced based on the circumstances but I would recommend ensuring that you:

Communicate with your staff (and customers) regularly and via multiple channels. It’s okay not to have all the answers yet, but it is not okay not to acknowledge the crisis until you think you have a full solution, which could take days or weeks. A not-perfect response as soon as possible is much better for your culture, trust and employee engagement than a perfect response well after the matter has first arisen. Transparency, honesty, timeliness, frequency and caring is key.

Collaborate with your staff – ask for ideas of how to respond in the short and long term. People will often come together to join forces in the face of a crisis. This could be with the whole of the workforce or setting up a steering committee. For example with the bushfire crisis, a number of organisations based on employee suggestions have provided both immediate support through donations and volunteer leave; and are also taking a longer term approach such as organising their annual offsites in affected areas to help rebuild local small businesses or providing additional leave for employees to plan holidays in those areas.

Care for your staff – ensure they have access to counseling support (your Employee Assistance Program can often come to your workplace) and are encouraged to look out for their team mates in uncertain times. Particularly those who are on the front line and the organisation’s leaders need to be supported and encouraged to take time out, talk to others, get enough sleep etc. Many organisations also provide resilience training. Perhaps longer term, organisations can also use the opportunity to focus on prioritising what really matters and increase their internal effectiveness.

– Regain a sense of Control (and Calm) – work out what is realistically within your and the organisation’s ability to influence, prioritise the key matters and focus on building your action plan around that.

Commercial strategy – naturally, the organisation does need to ensure that it manages it’s P&L appropriately to ensure that they try to prevent future job loss for their employees.

Community support – perhaps it makes sense for the organisation to be seen publicly as a key player in helping others to respond appropriately to the issue locally or globally. This could be based on it’s size, profile and ability to fund / donate support; or it could be based on the type of business it is such as logistics, travel, health, pharmaceuticals etc. This needs to be undertaken in a very genuine and altruistic manner, not as a PR exercise or even worse, be seen to be a strategy to increase sales!

Whilst it can feel overwhelming and disempowering with the myriad of challenges locally and globally at the moment, leaders can and should step up to help their people and organisations through such challenges with care, integrity and clarity.