How HR should communicate in a crisis

Senior leaders not only have to be excellent communicators but they must be exceptionally skilled in crisis situations.
By: | April 13, 2020 • 3 min read

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on coronavirus strategies and priorities for HR leaders—from HR’s top experts.

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Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson began his recent video address to employees on a darkly humorous note.

“There were some concerns that video wasn’t the best medium given my newly bald look,” said Sorenson, who is undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. “But I want to assure you I’m doing just fine and am focused on our business.”

Read all of HRE’s coronavirus-related coverage here.

Looking directly into the camera with a grave expression, he went on to list the serious challenges that Marriott, the world’s largest hospitality company, is facing now that global travel has been thoroughly decimated by the coronavirus pandemic: projects put on hold for the remainder of the year, hiring paused for all but the most critical positions, pay cuts of 50% for the executive team while Sorenson and Chairman Bill Marriott will take no salary for the rest of 2020. And massive numbers of employees would be laid off or furloughed.

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At this point, Sorenson’s voice began to crack. “There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates … that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

While it’s impossible to predict how long this crisis will last, he continued, “I know we as a global community will come through on the other side, and when we do, our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again. And when they do, we’ll be there to welcome them with the warmth and care we are known for the world over.”

He signed off by urging employees to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

Related: 6 strategies to maintain employee performance and engagement 

Rebecca Ray thinks other leaders may learn a few things by watching Sorenson’s address.

“Think about how emotionally authentic and impactful his remarks were,” says Ray, who leads the Conference Board’s U.S. Human Capital Center. “Hopefully, not too many leaders will have to deliver that particular message. But if they do, that was a masterful example.”

Senior leaders not only have to be excellent communicators but they must be exceptionally skilled in crisis situations because the world is only going to become more tumultuous, not less, says Ray.

Unfortunately, many aren’t up to the challenge.

“I don’t know too many leaders who are naturally good communicators in crisis situations—it’s not a natural fit for many people,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve done enough to help leaders present their authentic selves.”

Strong leadership is always important, but never more so than now, says the Hackett Group’s Max Caldwell, who leads its People & Transformation group.

“Some leaders are naturally inclined to empathize and reach out to employees,” he says. “That sort of thing goes a long way to building a sense of employee involvement and belonging. People are desperately hungry for leadership and guidance now.”

Marriott’s David Rodriguez was named HR Executive of the Year by Human Resource Executive magazine. Photo courtesy of Marriott

The quality of a leader’s communication skills has never been more important, says David Rodriguez, Marriott’s CHRO (and HRE’s 2019 HR Executive of the Year).

“Given the likely length of time it will take many businesses to recover from the current circumstances, it’s essential that leaders be able to explain the business context,” he says. “And, all of this must be communicated in a manner that attends to both the cognitive and emotional needs of their audience.”

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This is essential in order to inspire people to build the new future, says Rodriguez. “Resilience, openness to change and learning agility will be essential for everyone. The reality is that we may be creating a ‘new normal’ more frequently than ever before, due in part to the interconnectedness of the modern world.”

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Coming Tuesday: Rethinking workforce planning and hiring

Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.