Managing a Business Crisis: What HR Can Add to the Company Strategy

“I do not think employees should have to go home and watch the news to find out what is going on inside of the company they work at every day.”

That was a comment from an employee as we rode the elevator one morning.

I was the VP Human Resources/OD at Martha Stewart Living during the upheaval that we went through that caused the organization to ride a roller coaster at warp speed. This was due to the founder being found guilty on all four counts she faced in her obstruction of justice trial.

Try and imagine your employees coming to work in the morning with news trucks parked in front of your building and reporters trying to elicit responses from employees. Every day, the local news and all the tabloids had a field day with their quotes and front page headlines. It seemed that the world had turned against us.

However, there was a bright spot throughout this turmoil: our employees stayed upbeat and confident.

HR missing in action?

Last week, I watched the News of The World episode play out on all forms of media. At least back during our episode in 2003-2004, there was virtually no social media to speak of.

As I watched the British press scandal unfold, my thoughts were on those employees who at the end of the day were concerned whether they would have a job. Their wives, their partners, their kids and family members, were peppering them with questions and I’m sure they knew no more than the average person on the street. For someone to see a new flash or tweet that says that your company is closing down has to be like taking a punch in the gut — especially when most of them had nothing to do with it.

My thoughts were also on the HR staff at News of the World. Were they sitting at the table when they were putting the crisis management strategy in place? Were they working to lay out the people strategy surrounding this impending train wreck? As these charges were percolating over the past few years, was HR a major contributor to company strategies and decisions?

Now that the deed has been done and the News of the World company has closed, was this the point that HR was brought in to handle the aftermath, or shall we say, implement the people strategy? In other words, did HR simply come on in and handle the clean up and severance (which I have heard was 90 days of pay)?

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Those 200 plus News of the World employees, based on various reports, are to be absorbed into other News International companies, but you know as well as I that it is a noble gesture, to say the least. The employees, in many cases, will face questions as they prepare to interview for other jobs, especially the senior staff. They are also being thrown into a climate, print publishing, that is not in a major hiring mode. As a matter of fact, print is slowly being overtaken by digital.

Dealing with the unexpected

Regardless of your training, tenure and certification, these type organizational dysfunctions can’t be anticipated. However they can be prepared for.

At Martha Stewart Omnimedia, our employees stayed upbeat when we had our crisis, and this is how we approached it:

  • We convened focus groups to get to the heart of our employees’ concern.
  • We condensed these points to a manageable group.
  • We went on a road show and talked to all areas of the company.
  • We communicated, and then communicated some more.
  • We kept them in the loop as much as possible.

The TV department, which we had to close due to the cancellation of the television show, caused a massive layoff. We contacted all the TV/cable stations in New York, had them send a list of open jobs, and asked them to give a second look at our employees. We communicated this to our employees and encouraged them to apply for these positions. When we sent out the emails with the job postings, we sent them company-wide. While only a few were hired, this showed all our employees that we were going the extra mile to try and help them find employment.

We also decided to keep in touch with this group just in case we were able to put the show back on once the dust settled. When it did, we had our team back, basically intact.

Today more than ever, human resources professionals need to become a major partner in business strategy. If HR can add value to the strategy, then — and only then — will they become a strategic partner. It has to be earned.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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