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How to Respond to Current Events That Impact Employees

Visionary Leadership,

A key tenet of human-centric leadership is demonstrating empathetic leadership. If you pay attention, this isn’t too hard to do — in normal times. But are you prepared to address and support your employees in the face of impactful events?

Every day, news big and small changes the world we’re living in. Sometimes there is something to celebrate; miners are rescued from a cave-in, or a disease cure is found. But too often, tragedies like natural disasters, school shootings, and other violent events dominate headlines. In those cases, leaders are faced with employees and other stakeholders who may be deeply shaken by tragic news. Are you prepared to address your team and offer support?

What about in-house announcements? Whether it be a windfall like an upcoming partnership or a tragedy like an employee death, your team will expect you to provide information. 

Let’s consider which events to acknowledge, how to respond, and the best ways to do so. 

Acknowledge News That Impacts Employees

Leaders are often experts at setting clear boundaries between their business and personal lives. But major current events and corporate changes can disrupt stakeholders’ lives and hamper employees’ feelings of security. 

Failing to comment on major current events can make you appear out of touch or uncaring, while acknowledging news that has the potential to impact their lives can help employees feel seen, appreciated, and heard. News gets around the workplace and elsewhere whether you choose to mention it or not. 

In the event of a tragedy, acknowledging the event can help your employees process the news while feeling seen and supported. And when there’s great news, everyone loves being included.

Once you’ve decided to officially acknowledge or comment on an event, you’ll need to decide how to respond.

Consider Who is Affected, and How

Responding to concerns surrounding current events might not always mean addressing the entire organization. 

As a leader, you may struggle with whether you should acknowledge certain news via a company-wide address or a more targeted response. Your decision might be affected by your organization’s size, reach, or values. 

You might begin by reaching out individually to your direct reports. Ask them how they’re doing with the news and how their teams are coping. These one-on-one conversations can help you decide what kind of show of support might be in order. 

Once you’ve judged the scale of the event and how it is affecting your employees, choose a response that fits the situation. Here are some examples:

  • People might be intrigued by a royal wedding, but it is unlikely to affect them or their work on a profound level. This doesn’t require an official statement.
  • A school shooting can paralyze parents with fear for their own kids, even if the tragedy happens a thousand miles away. Would the parents on your team benefit from crisis support counseling?
  • An employee’s household fire might inspire a voluntary donation fund to help the person recover.
  • When a worldwide tragedy occurs, start with an all-hands meeting and go from there, providing further support as the situation suggests.

Consider the Best Medium for a Company-Wide Response

Sometimes it just takes one person taking a few minutes to listen to a person or a small concerned group to show empathy and offer support. But other times, a company-wide address is in order.

How can you choose the best medium to address your whole organization en masse? Here are the two most popular options:

Town Halls (All-Hands Meetings)

Town hall meetings, also called “all-hands meetings,” offer a large-scale face-to-face option. They are great for addressing critical news, especially if many of your stakeholders work in-house.  Town halls offer a good opportunity for you to step over the boundaries separating business and personal matters by:

  • Acknowledging concerns in person
  • Making eye contact with those present to express your concern
  • Encouraging employees to offer each other support
  • Offering crisis support counseling or other helpful services

If your organization is a mix of in-house and remote workers, consider using video conferencing tools to relay the event to others, or turn to the second option — email.

Email: How to Write About Current Events

Email is an efficient way to address the whole company, but is slightly less personal. If you go this route, there are several important components to include in the notification:

  1. Acknowledge the critical event that occurred. Consider including a link to a credible news source detailing the event “to learn more.” In the event of an employee death, you can provide a link to a death notification or obituary. Here is a sample of how to make notification of the death of an employee.
  2. Acknowledge how they may be feeling about the event.
  3. End with a call to action (CTA). This is critical if you’re part of a large enterprise, because you may not be able to handle individual email responses while dealing with the crisis itself. So detail concrete next steps people can take. Begin the sentence using an action verb. Here are a few examples: 
    1. “We’ve set up a fund where you can make a voluntary donation to the family if you want. Details to follow.” 
    2. “Consult your HR representative for additional resources.”
    3. “Email ____@______ to offer your feedback.”
    4. “Sign this digital card to offer your condolences to the family.”
    5. “We’ve created a distinct chat channel where you can share your memories of our coworker and friend, Katie.”
  4. Include an autoresponder message.  “I appreciate your response and will reply as time allows. Thank you for your patience” communicates that you are interested in knowing what the sender has to say, but may be unable to reply right away. Alternatively, something like “To learn about additional resources, contact your HR representative/other designated staff” directs the employee to a designated contact to handle messages and queries.

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Establish a Plan Before Events Occur

Visionary leaders can use the considerations above to create a plan for dealing with impactful events before they occur.

Having a plan is useful for ongoing and repeating events; for example, if you are the CEO of a company with numerous employees, know that if you acknowledge the birth of a child of one employee, you’ll be remiss if you don’t do it for all subsequent births in your company after that.

But a plan will really pay for itself most when unexpected events occur. When everyone is reeling from a catastrophe, having a plan will make it much easier for you to respond.

Potential components of your plan:

  1. Written guidelines describing in broad strokes the types of news and events you will address as a company (and perhaps more importantly, any you won’t, like political or religious matters).
  2. A chain of command indicating who will handle what. Who will address the company? Who will handle counseling? Who will provide resources? Who will address the press if necessary?
  3. Planned methods or channels for notifying or addressing employees and outside stakeholders.
  4. A list of ongoing or repeating events that will be acknowledged by the company, with the approved procedures outlined.

If you create a plan for dealing with expected events, you’ll be ready to roll with whatever good or bad news comes your way, even if you have to change some things on the fly to adapt to a specific situation.

Takeaway

Deciding whether and how to respond to current events in the context of the workplace can be a challenge for leaders. So it’s wise to establish a plan before you are caught off guard by something unexpected. Then, when something happens, acknowledge news that impacts employees, determine how to respond, and consider the best medium for addressing the company.

With a strong plan in place, you’ll be able to demonstrate sensitivity and awareness while also supporting your employees in an unpredictable world.

Learn More From Fast Company Leaders

Reaching out to peer leaders in your professional network is a great way to find support and more ideas for addressing current events, delivering bad news, and celebrating big moments.

Fast Company Executive Board fosters a diverse community of innovators, founders, decision makers, industry influencers, and thought leaders that offer meaningful connections and discussions of this kind. Learn more about the benefits of becoming a Fast Company Executive Board member by visiting our membership page or contacting us for more information.

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