How to Communicate a Workplace Tragedy

Frontcover_April29As we approach International Day of Mourning on April 28, I recall a quick lesson in PR school on how to manage an employee’s death on the work site and how I hoped it was something I never had to do. So far, I haven’t.

A couple of years ago however, I learned much more about how best to deal with tragedy in the workplace,  from Shirley Hickman, a woman (and former client), who exemplifies the “integrity2impact” theme of this blog — out of a tragic loss.

In 1996, Shirley and her family’s lives changed forever when their son Tim perished after a traumatic workplace explosion. After the initial shock, the family looked for answers about what occurred and why. Beyond their own needs, they wanted to find out so they could help prevent a similar incident from happening to someone else. Sadly, they learned the explosion was predictable and preventable, if everyone had followed a series of safety rules.

Since then, Shirley has focused on making a difference in workplace health and safety through her own initiatives and Threads of Life – Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support, a national registered charity, which she co-founded in 2003.

I met Shirley when I managed the PR launch of Forget Me Not, a book this charity produced to promote safer work environments through true stories of Canadian workplace tragedies. While doing background research, I found a noteworthy article entitled “Dealing with Affected Families,”  which appeared in Accident Prevention magazine. It outlines Shirley’s recommendations for communicating with this audience after a workplace tragedy/critical injury, as told to an interviewer.  Initially targeted at occupational health experts, I think these recommendations are also particularly pertinent to internal communicators and HR folks:

  1. Establish a communications link with the family as soon as possible – Contact the family as soon as the crisis communications team has assessed the situation and devised an action plan. Ideally assign one person to liaise with the family and keep them updated. The worst thing  Shirley said “is to leave the family to others, such as the Ministry of Labour….when that happens, the family becomes bitter towards the employer before they even know the facts.”
  2. Build compassion into crisis communications – Check what support services are available for employees and their families in advance and include these details in your corporate communications and crisis planning. Then, if a tragedy occurs, you can ask the family what they need, describe available services, such as grief counselling, employee assistance programs or media interview support, and connect them with the needed help.  In some scenarios, staff might also help with practical needs, such as arranging childcare or transportation, immediately after an incident.
  3. Manage the information flow – Screen new information, as it becomes available but maintain a sense of openness and transparency by not withholding critical information, including answers to tough questions. If however information can’t be released for legal reasons, then tell the family this.
  4. Establish a legacy, after the crisis passes – “Talk about who the person was, the loss to the family and the loss to the community, and how valued the person was as a worker,” Shirley recommends.  Positive gestures can range from a phone call to say “we’re thinking of your family right now” or a card to establishing a scholarship or post-secondary occupational or public health and safety program.

Shirley believes good crisis communications helps the company and those left behind by “reducing the psychological problems and absenteeism rates that go with extreme emotional stress.” She suggests a critical incident or fatality is not just about one family but the families of all their coworkers too.  “They’re watching how the company is responding to the family of the worker because it could have been them, and their families,” she cautions.

Granted each organization has its own challenges and limitations but these points provide a good starting place for how to enhance internal crisis communications, from the unique perspective of those directly affected for the long-term.

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Breaking Barriers to Get Your Message Online

YourHealthYourWagEx3Your organization’s website is likely its lobby to the world, with gateways to pages that convey its historical rise to its current value proposition. For brand consistency and streamlined access, the best practice is to have a single website but sometimes I don’t find this viable.

If you’ve  ever tried to “renovate” or add an item/page to your website for a valid purpose, only to be halted by a rigid platform, a tight budget, limited resources or a backlog of other priorities — you know what I mean.

Blogs are noted for their flexibility and capacity to go into overtime when a crisis occurs, while your website or traditional channels may be too slow or inaccessible. The same premise applies to using a blogging platform to create a “pop-up” micro site, for a short-term need or a “workaround” to the main website.

TrilliumHallEgWhen do you need a pop-up microsite?  What about when…

  1. You need to promote an event in a tight time frame (such as a first-time public information event targeted at local residents)
  2. You need to launch an unconventional application or brand extension for your product or service (such as a multimedia venue a hospital wants to market to “healthy” people)
  3. You anticipate multiple updates for a quick pace build or a tiered campaign roll-out (such as a conference assembled in an insane time frame with fluctuating abstracts and speakers joining at a staggered pace)

For mavericks who “dare to challenge” convention, a pop-up site can also serve as a workaround for the above or other scenarios when your main website is:

  • Governed by an umbrella organization and your initiative is sure to exceed the pages, resources or customizations allocated to your division, department or franchise.
  • Hopelessly hard-coded and long overdue an upgrade
  • Managed by limited resources, with many requests ahead in the queue.

SustainPlantExI’ve turned to WordPress to quickly and efficiently build a micro site as a central communications conduit for some of the above scenarios and more.   [Here are the steps I’ve followed to create a pop-up site in WordPress but you can likely do the same in other blogging platforms.] Be sure however to check WordPress.com policies before you start to ensure you conform and there’s no surprises.

Have you created a microsite to meet a short-term or other need? Have you had success in other platforms? What challenges did you face? When do you think a pop-up site can prove invaluable and when should it be avoided?

Did “Thank You” Get Archived?

 In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing scarcity of the phrase “thank you,” particularly between internal stakeholders and peers.  Sure we thank our customers/clients and external influencers  but when it comes to employees or volunteers, there seems to be a top-down belief that verbal gratitude for “doing your job” is irrelevant.This may, in part, be reflected in Ceridian Canada’s recent Pulse of Talent survey which found 44 per cent of respondents are either not satisfied (22 per cent) or indifferent (22 per cent) with the level of recognition they currently receive at work.

In some cases, I think this tendency stems from litigation-weary executives, who cynically lump “thank-you” in the same group as “sorry” — that is, a cause for suspicion or softening of their authority.  Case in point was an executive who forced me to justify why I wanted a “thank you” line at the end a letter asking franchisees to take extra steps to manage a vendor challenge (and protect the corporate brand). Similarly, I heard of a hospital VP forbidden by her CEO to thank staff for investing extensive effort to prepare for a stringent accreditation process.

Sadly, thanks is often replaced by citing tiny shortfalls of a job that’s generally well done and may even exceed objectives. Alternatively, there are those who grill employees (or even volunteers) in meetings but quietly thank them behind closed doors.

I’m not sure when this started. Maybe a time crunched world with many people agitated by email acknowledgments filling their in boxes prompted “thank you’s” dismissal? For some, I think there’s a tendency just to cut to the chase with “no time for pleasantries.”

But is that all “thank you” is? Hardly.

For one, isn’t it just common courtesy and good manners? Oddly enough though, a quick Google search for articles linking business etiquette with “thank you” came up blank.

There is however evidence that it makes good business sense.

O. C. Tanner built its organization around “The Carrot Principle” and data demonstrating that the most successful managers provide their employees with frequent and effective recognition.  They also use it to engage people, retain talent and accelerate performance.

Companies like this demonstrate the value of appreciation in a formal format but what about in casual exchanges?

2010 study (by Grant and Gino) published in the Journal of  Personality and Social Psychology found that people who received thank you emails after helping a stranger with a cover letter, were 66 per cent more likely to help this person again with a similar task because “they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked.”  This sentiment had a lingering effect as 55 per cent of the same individuals responded to a similar call for help, from a different person, the next day.

Is it not then in an organization’s best interest to boost morale and ongoing engagement with a sincere “thank you” in meetings and correspondence?

Is my experience isolated or did “thank you” get archived? If so, here is one study to counter the skeptics and back up the value of gratitude. (Please tell me if you know of more.) With them, maybe we can help reverse this potential trend and in doing so, maintain and build support among our internal teams and our most vital ambassadors. What do you think?