7 Employer Brand Management Tips During Crisis

7 Employer Brand Management Tips During Crisis

Table of Contents

It’s not a time to revolutionize anything. It’s a good time to make existing things better.

Managing your company’s reputation is a challenge at the best of times. Nowadays it’s more than a challenge. It’s an imperative. That is, if you wish to prevail post-pandemic.

Your organization was headed in one direction, one trajectory, one velocity. And then all of a sudden *smack* COVID-19 struck. Everything we knew or thought to be true changed. The question many of us are asking is how to reinforce or establish a reputation for doing the right thing during this crisis?

There’s something to be said about slowing down before speeding up. About taking advantage of the great big pause button that’s put plans on hold and frozen the ability to make forward-facing decisions when the future is as clear as mud.

We’re in uncertain times, yet everyone’s looking for certainty.

Unfortunately, being able to communicate uncertainty is really tough. That’s where being as open and transparent as possible, proactively communicating, being responsive and acknowledging “we don’t know. But we’re going to do everything we can to avoid ABC outcome and here’s how…” becomes critical. Think of it as the soft side of strong employer branding, the velvet glove rather than an iron fist.

If we approach our systems and our programs and our strategies from a people perspective trust will help to fill uncertainty gaps. And our good reputations will at minimum remain intact, or possibly, even flourish. Here’s how:

 1. Build Employee Relationships

Now is the time to focus inward, to reach out to our employees with empathy and authenticity. To be real in acknowledging how the story has changed. To maintain conversation. To maintain as much community as we can by keeping people connected through something as simple as virtual brown bag lunches.

Have rich one-on-ones with every member on your team, at least weekly. Think of them as well-being conversations.

Have stay interviews with employees to find out how their work from home experience is going. What could be done better to make the experience better?

If your people are in different time zones, record a video from the CEO and send it out.

The new narrative is less about business and more about people. Interestingly though, what a lot of companies do in hard times is stop all of their people initiatives. But the moment we start taking away the focus on people, that’s where we start churning a bit of a negative reputation.

Yes, there’s shareholder value or profitability. Yes, there’s customer satisfaction. But those are all outputs. And none of that happens unless the inputs–what employees do every day–are looked after. It’s understandable that CEOs may not be focusing on the inputs and the positive experiences around that right now, because they’re looking at numbers. All day. Every day. They’re worried about where business is headed. But by focusing on the inputs, on the people, that’s where we’ll see our organizations come out of this with a better reputation and in a strong position to be able to hire people back.

Now’s the time to work on the business in terms of the people driving it.

It’s important to show our employees we care. That we’re listening. That these are the steps we’re taking to make sure they can be as secure and productive as possible. Acknowledge their circumstances. “We know that during this whole crisis you’ve got your family at home, your kids, your pets. We know you’re not going to be as focused as you would have been two weeks ago, and that’s okay.”

2. Handle Downsizing and Layoffs with Extreme Sensitivity

This crisis, sadly, is stirring up a wake of workforce casualties. The Labor Department tells us the U.S. economy lost 701,000 jobs in March, even before the coronavirus spurred historic unemployment. So let’s be upfront and honest about the tough choices we have to make. Maintaining contact with anyone who is impacted is vital–whether that’s introducing them to other organizations, giving them a recommendation on LinkedIn, or keeping up a text-based conversation or virtual chat to find out how they’re doing. It may not provide the outcome they’re seeking but at least it shows we care.

If you’ve laid off large numbers that’s a bigger task. But there’s power in coaching up your managers to show empathy and support. Remember it wasn’t the fault of anyone that’s been impacted, so don’t treat them like it was.

Give reputation management precedence. Consider this example: Let’s say you’re an organization that’s cash rich and you’ve got tons of long-term contracts, tons of profitability, and funds in the bank–yet you lay off 30% of your employees. People are going to ask why. And you better have a good answer.

The decisions you make today and how you communicate them leave a lasting impression. Not just on the people impacted by downsizing. They’re also going to impact everybody else you hold on to. They’re going to have survivor guilt and know they work for a company that “said this, but did that….” Not good from an employer brand perspective.

 3. Build Relationships with Potential Hires

Conversely, while it’s true very few people are going to want to make life-changing decisions right now, you may have been in discussions with candidates before the pandemic took hold. There are also those caught in downsizing who are going to be ramping up their job search. Now’s the opportunity to build relationships with those individuals while being fully transparent. Develop a program that shows your commitment to people of interest. Keep in touch. Think of it as dating. You’re going to know one another better if you go out on 20 dates versus three. So, take advantage of this pandemic pause as a time to make slower, better hiring decisions.

4. Build Skill Sets

This is an opportune time for cross-lateralization. In other words, expose people from one stream of work to another. People from HR might get involved with the marketing team, the development team, or the customer support team to better understand the context those employees work within. Maybe there’s an opportunity to apply something learned in product development somewhere else. This is the time to broaden employee skill sets in a way that wouldn’t have been available under typical circumstances, or that just wasn’t prioritized before.

One of the main things HR leaders would do well to do, is to focus on coaching in soft skill areas like compassion and responsiveness. Do some empathy training so people leaders understand the impact of this on individuals. Goodness knows how long this is going to take. We don’t really know what life after COVID-19 will look like, but if we know what our people’s needs are now, we can start building on that.

And if you don’t have a crisis team set in place today, get one going speedy pronto.  Form a group responsible for crisis management matters such as communication, employee relations, customer and stakeholder relations.

 5. Build and Strengthen Community Relations

Extend your empathy to the broader community. Whether it’s channeling funds for COVID-19 research, retooling to produce medical equipment ,or running a food drive for the local food bank, measures of caring like these can help engage people by aligning them to something bigger than themselves.

6. Build Return-to-Work Scenarios and Strategies for Life-After-COVID

You can’t put the remote work genie back in the bottle after coming out of this. So, what will our next new normal look like? What will it include?

Having a transition plan to transition is wildly important.

What will happen with organizations that were hesitant or resistant to things like work from home and workforce flexibility? What about the companies that want an exit strategy from remote working? How will that be explained? It’s like telling employees “we trusted you when there was a pandemic, but now we want you back on site because we don’t trust this arrangement for the long haul.”

The early consensus is organizations weak or rigid in these areas are going to be exposed. And not in a good way. After all (and let’s be honest) the concept of an on-site nine to five job is pretty much over. Once we get out of this, employees are going to say, “hey I’ve been working from home for the last several weeks or months…why do I have to work on-site now? People leaders need to be prepared for that (and remember–those people leaders are in the same boat). If you don’t provide that flexibility it’s going to be harder to retain and recruit talent.

7. Do a Retrospective

We all have more time now than we did a few weeks ago. You don’t want to be the HR leader or organization that didn’t take this opportunity to go back to basics and establish, fix, or modify things that impact your business and employees.

What programs or projects have been on the back burner because you just didn’t have the time and can now be prioritized?

Lockdowns exploded. You reacted. Ask your organization, your employees, what went well and what didn’t? What could have been done differently? Do we want to continue doing the things that have gone well? This feedback will give you an indication of where to spend effort and resources.

A retrospective is partly about what you’re doing now, but it’s also a future look at what our world and your organization is going to need a year from now. A future vision. Some companies may be able to “get by” with band-aid solutions. But what are the long-term strategies and resources to get there?

Is what we’re doing the most important and impactful thing we can be doing?  We need to address how our employees are feeling, and ultimately, how that impacts our overall reputation.

So, let’s double down on communication. Let’s be open, transparent, tell people what’s going on, and recognize that any kind of secrecy threatens to erode trust.

There’s mental stress that comes with being isolated. Let’s double down on engagement and well-being.

And finally, let’s all double down on gratitude. We’re asking people to do things that may be different from what they’re used to doing: shifting their roles, doing more with less. If we double down on gratitude, and tap into emotional intelligence, the intrinsic motivation that comes as a result will go a long way in maintaining our reputations.

Bottom line: It’s all about people.