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In our last blog, we discussed some of the challenges facing Irish leaders in terms of skills shortages and career development. In this blog, we will be focusing on a very real challenge facing Irish leaders today – that of crisis management.

Crisis management on a global scale

How leaders deal with crisis can have a huge effect on those that follow them. After all, it is often in times of crisis that we see a leader’s true colours. During the pandemic, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, was perceived as failing to show any empathy or emotion for the victims of the global health crisis, and seemingly only worried about getting the economy moving again. And in the midst of all this, when an already hurting American public protested the killing of George Floyd, Trump used the opportunity to have his photo taken with the bible, teargassing protesters who got in the way of his shot. This was after he threatened the protesters with a Tweet proclaiming, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. (Trump’s defence was that he had not realised the racial connotations of the phrase, which dates back to the civil rights era. The fact that his defence is all too believable fails to provide any comfort.)  Trump’s actions during both crises only served to divide the American public, rather than unite them.

Meanwhile, over the other side of the world, we had Jacinda Ardern, whom media outlets have described as New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in over a century. Ardern has time and again displayed a sense of level-headedness and decisiveness when under pressure. During Covid-19, her government gained worldwide recognition due to its swift and tough lockdown measures. Prior to this crisis, Ardern had been praised for her empathy and compassion in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks.

Ardern and Trump are both examples of leaders at their height of power. Of course, it is not just national leaders that need to be aware of how they react in times of crisis. When PwC ran their first ever Global Crisis Survey in 2019, the company’s advice to businesses was to “assume everybody is always watching… you will be expected to handle any crisis instantly, effectively, and properly”.  One year on, this has proven to be true. Cancel culture has had a hugely negative impact on organisations throughout the lockdown. Thanks to social media, workplaces that have been flouting the rules have been outed and boycotted. Essential businesses have been held to account for their treatment of workers throughout the crisis. Even before lockdown rules were introduced, retailers, bars and restaurants throughout the country were being shut by public demand. In these volatile times, when reputation means everything, strong leadership in organisations has never been more important.

What can HR do?

As recent events have shown, crisis can creep up on a business when least expected. Any crisis, whether predicted or unforeseen, needs to be dealt with – and dealt with immediately. When Ireland went into full lockdown, many business leaders likely experienced a state of panic. Organisations have had to deal with sudden loss of revenue, supply chain disruptions, decreased demand and transport issues, among others. In a survey conducted by the Central Statistics Office between March – April 2020, it was found that 69% of Irish businesses had implemented remote working as a way of keeping the business running. In organisations without a pre-existing remote work policy, IT and HR functions were under sudden pressure to roll out home-working in an incredibly short amount of time. In businesses where remote working was not possible, HR functions were kept busy either making workplaces safe or dealing with lay-offs, short-time and redundancy situations.

We can clearly see that, during the recent global crisis, HR has very much been on every organisation’s front line. It stands to reason then that HR can and should take a very active role in crisis management. No business function is better primed to understand employee needs, address their concerns, and appreciate their role in the organisation.  After all, when a business is vulnerable, so too are its employees and vice versa. So, where to start?

Crisis Management in the current situation

Given that we are still very much in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there is no better time to review existing strategy and see will it hold up for an extended duration of time. What policies have the HR department had to adapt for the current time? Will they continue to be in place for the foreseeable? If not, what will the impact be on your employees? What is the general mood amongst employees currently?

As the government advice is for those that can work remotely to continue to do so, you might have some employees attending work while some remain working from home. Are the HR policies in place currently suitable for both sets of employees? Are they fair? Are your employees that have returned to the workplace resentful of those that have not – or vice versa? Can you foresee this causing an issue in the future? If you run an essential business, have you considered the effect that staying open during lockdown may have had on your employees?

Transparency and open communication is vital in a crisis. In cases such as the coronavirus pandemic, the situation changes almost daily. Employees need to be kept in the loop about all things relating to their individual roles, their teams, any updated policies, and anything that may have an impact on their salary or their working hours.

Communication is also important from a wellbeing perspective. Employees need to feel connected with one another and with their managers. As a HR professional, you can play an important role in helping managers that may be struggling with current working conditions.

Crisis Management Planning

Now is also a good time to assess the initial response of your business to the crisis. Were warning signs ignored? Was the reaction efficient? If more advance warning had been given, what could you have done differently? Businesses are in a unique position now to learn from their recent crisis management and consider how they will react during any future crises. Those that do are likely to find the transition to future crisis management less disruptive than those that do not. Depending on the size of the business, planning for potential crises may involve a number of different departments, such as IT, HR, Operations, Communications and the senior management team. This stage of crisis management involves assessing potential risks to the business, what warning signs to look out for, prevention planning, impact reduction, contingency planning and recovery planning.

HR can contribute to the planning for crisis management by reviewing what is likely to have an impact on individual employees. It is also HR’s responsibility to ensure that all employees know how to identify potential threats to the business. Training could be given during employee onboarding on areas that are most applicable to your business. For example, all businesses would benefit from GDPR and data privacy training. This will help employees to recognise what may be attempts by external parties to gain access to valuable company and employee information.

A robust crisis management plan will anticipate many different potential disasters. During initial planning sessions, you may find it helpful to brainstorm crises and rate them according to likelihood and impact. Response to a terrorist attack will be completely different to response to a power cut, for example. Crisis management planning will anticipate all such potential disasters, their impact, and how to avert crisis.

We hope that this two-part series on leadership challenges has given you some food for thought. Remember that you can always get in touch with Insight HR for a confidential discussion about how we can help to support your business’ leadership teams through our learning and development forums.

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