With unemployment rates at some of the lowest level we’ve seen in 50 years and consumer spending remaining strong despite historic inflation, many business leaders have started preparing for a potential global economic downturn—even if CEOs remain bullish on business growth despite the challenges. Already, we’ve seen the technology and housing sectors slow new hiring and cut tens of thousands of existing positions—and we are on the precipice of a potential economic downturn due to higher inflation, the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Yet simultaneously, we’ve seen increasingly emboldened workers over the last two years hold their employers to a higher standard on everything from pay to their stance on societal issues.
As the global economy tightens, C-suite business leaders may be forced to make strategic decisions that will significantly restructure their company’s trajectory in a way that could threaten their relationships with key stakeholders, namely their employees. Reductions in the workforce, organizational restructuring, shifts in business priorities and strategies, and how leaders address a reinvigorated organized labor movement are just some examples of issues that companies will likely face in the coming months.
All these business challenges will have implications on an organization’s reputation and ability to successfully operate, and business leaders need to communicate these changes thoughtfully and strategically. It’s important not to minimize the fact that in times of tension and uncertainty, leaders will be judged by how they treat their people, just as they were during the height of the pandemic—both immediately and well into the future. Successfully communicating shifts in business strategy not only demonstrates effective leadership but also reinforces a company’s confidence in its future.
Here are five key rules to live by when you are planning to communicate major shifts in your business:
1. Own the narrative for major changes. Whether it’s a reduction of workforce or organizational change, leadership needs to be out in front. CEOs need to show they are willing to make the difficult choices to maintain a steady ship. They should reinforce the company’s vision and business rationale, engage directly with employees rather than defaulting to company-wide emails, and approach communications humbly and with humanity. Because while the business decision being may be necessary, it’s important to be mindful of the impact it can have on people’s livelihoods. And the impulse to move past the moment quickly should be avoided at all costs. Keep in mind—it is absolutely imperative you do not alienate your most precious resource: talent.
2. Provide a clear rationale. CEOs need to be clear about the factors that went into their decision-making. For example, if there are unexpected leadership changes at the top of an organization, businesses need to communicate the value-add new leadership will bring. Organizations also need to be clear about the factors that went into the decision. Where possible, include data on challenges the business is facing—such as expected revenue impact over a given period, as well as relevant industry forecasts. Media is also currently heavily focused on all aspects of business instability, highlighting the broader economic impact and connecting it to the larger narrative of the potential decline of the American economy. Leaders need to be transparent about their reasons for changes.
3. Give employees a reason to continue to believe. Changes that impact the workforce can create significant feelings of instability and lead to a rise in negative emotions and anxiety about the future. Steer your talent to your long-term vision for the company—and if an organization is considering a workforce reduction, it needs to treat all employees, both current and former, with respect and dignity. Economic downturns end and organizations that handle them well will be rewarded by future talent—particularly by Millennials and members of Gen Z, who expect purpose in their jobs and for their employers to care about their wellbeing.
4. Ensure you have the right team in place and leave nothing to chance. The timeline for making announcements that could radically shift operational structures and resources needs to be tightly orchestrated by capable teams that have a pulse on your workforce. Companies need to prioritize the notification of any impacted individuals and the broader organization before the news reaches media and other external audiences. These announcements also involve a complex set of variables that need to be weighed as they can have significant ripple effects across an industry—and most likely, across the economy. Therefore, it’s critical that companies forecast risks for the options they are considering before making any major announcement, and that leaders anticipate possible reactions to these changes and be prepared to handle them. For example, if you are announcing you are closing a facility in a town where your company has long been a fixture, be prepared to manage possible criticism from elected officials, community members and local media.
5. Be mindful of the resurgence of employee advocacy. After years of declining influence, unionization is having a resurgence as employees across a wide range of industries are increasingly organizing to ask for more from their employers—from pay and benefits to the company’s stance on major societal issues. As a wave of worker organizing speeds ahead and generates significant media attention, leaders will need to put in more effort than ever to maintain honest, open lines of communication with their workforce to build trust and foster strong relationships between management and employees. Even in organizations where organized labor is not a concern, employees feel emboldened to push leadership to consider and respond to their concerns. At the same time, we have seen employees take to social media—particularly on LinkedIn—and share their thoughts and anxieties about their employers. However, with good employee relations and fair and consistent policies and practices, employees will feel more inclined to work with you than against you.
The coming months and years ahead are likely to challenge business leaders with navigating a changed business environment—one where they will need to communicate some difficult decisions to their people and other external stakeholders. Through these changes, it’s essential for them to put their people first and plan for risk so they can navigate the situation and preserve the hard-earned reputations they’ve built.