Eden Gillott is active in the Los Angeles chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)'s business Accelerator program, which empowers entrepreneurs with the tools, community, and accountability necessary to aggressively grow their businesses. As president of Gillott Communications, a strategic and crisis communications firm, Eden helps companies protect reputations and build trust. We asked Eden how leaders can best respond to employee unrest. Here's what she shared:
It's not quite Cancel Culture, but there's been a sharp increase in disgruntled employees over the past few months, causing quite a stir for companies.
How do you know if your employees are gruntled? They're happy and engaged. How can you tell if they're disgruntled? They're typically visibly unhappy, distant, or even hostile. And very vocal.
Disgruntled current (or soon-to-be-former) employees are often seeking change. They either aren't seeing it happen or don't feel it's happening fast enough or in the way they want. So, they take matters into their own hands. How? By contacting customers, investors, and strategic partners to spread gossip, rumors, or even fantastical storylines in an attempt to get what they want or "burn the place down" trying.
It's one thing if an upset customer or rival brand trashes your company's reputation. But it stings extra when it comes from the inside. Also, an inside viewpoint lends credibility to allegations. You know those articles about the inner workings of a company filled with details from a "source close to the situation"? More often than not, those are disgruntled employees.
Here are five ways to respond and communicate effectively when an employee seeks to stir the pot internally or reaches out to outside stakeholders.
Put Safety First
The 2021 Summer Olympics brought mental health awareness to the forefront. Similarly, as the pandemic drags on, uncertainty and fatigue have created extra pressure on employees. That's resulted in a rise in threats to safety--both online and in-person. We've seen it manifest in a surge of doxxing (posting an individual's personal, identifiable information), resulting in bullying and death threats. My company has even had to consult on whether local law enforcement should be on-site in response to credible threats of violence at companies and schools.
Avoid an Information Void
Is the employee's behavior negatively impacting morale and company culture? If so, you must address it. When a vacuum occurs, rumors and speculation quickly fill it. That leads to misinformation, which breeds panic, fear, and an unnecessary loss of reputation.
The solution is simple: Don't keep your stakeholders in the dark. By keeping them informed, you have the advantage of shaping the story.
Just like managing expectations, you must manage the flow of information. If you don't, you're either making the situation worse or creating a whole separate crisis. This strategy works with employees, customers, investors, the media--you name it.
Silence speaks volumes and is rarely the right message.
Strategize to Combat Misinformation
It's critical to shut down misinformation and manage messaging. First, identify your leak. Typically, the disgruntled employee still has access to the company's email, client database, or is leaning on another employee for inside information. You must cut off that employee's access to client information.
It's especially sticky when lies are based on nuggets of truth. Since they're rooted in or sprinkled with reality, it's hard for outsiders to parse out what's false. Will you go line-by-line, focusing on the top offenders, or shoot everything down at once? Suppose there are myriad allegations, and you address most of them but are silent on the rest? If you do that, it'll appear the ones you don't deny are therefore accurate, whether or not that's true.
Prioritize Internal Communications
Many companies expend energy and resources focusing on customers but largely neglect employees. Don't fall into that trap.
Show employees that you care. You don't want them to feel they can't raise legitimate concerns, and you don't want it to appear you're trying to silence everyone and rule with an iron fist.
Bare minimum, provide employees with correct information. They'll talk to family and friends--conversations that may eventually leak out to other stakeholders and the media.
Be Proactive with External and Media Communications
Pick up the phone and call significant clients or investors.
What do people already know? What's likely to surface? It's best to seize the opportunity by being the first to say something and doing so within a reasonable time frame. That allows you to frame the story and set the tone for everything that follows. It also buys goodwill, as people will view your company as forthcoming. If it seems you're trying to hide or withhold information, you'll appear guilty.
What if the media comes calling? It's generally ill-advised to ignore the media. Never assume your comments are off the record. Be prepared: Know what you want to convey and stick to two or three talking points. Don't repeat negative buzzwords, even if the reporter does; that only emphasizes what you don't want to talk about.