Sharing tough messages with employees in a downturn – the Indian perspective


By now, the industry has witnessed a host of communication ranging from measures to mitigate risks, improve efficiencies, pay cuts, reduce staff strength, revisit talent pool, unpaid holidays, closure of offices and freeze on hiring.  


The toll on employees is already showing. High depression and job insecurity among them is forcing them to seek counseling.


What differentiates the best companies from the mediocre is their ability to consistently deliver hard news honestly, directly and proactively. I think companies in India need to grasp the power of internal communication messaging to avoid eroding market value, morale and talent. According to research, the 200 ‘most admired’ companies spent more than three times as much on employee communications as the 200 ‘least admired’ companies. Weber Shandwick’s research points to expectations from employees to receiving increased communication during these difficult times.



Here are my recommendations which I believe works from an Indian perspective – to improve connection and credibility while communicating tough messages.


a)      Craft a messaging plan before sharing any communication with employees. Recently a large Indian IT services organization’s campus hiring message ended up misconstrued when they asked 5000 engineers to switch careers to BPO if they wanted their jobs to stay. Could the organization have provided more business rationale and been a bit more concerned for these new recruits’ frame of mind in a downturn?  Can employees be given the choice of making a decision after they are provided all the relevant business decision thinking?

b)      Focus on the positives without downplaying the bad news: In India, job security and compensation are key drivers for engagement. Even if there are messages which talk of lay-offs, reduction in pay, forced holiday plans and office closures it still makes sense to highlight success stories among people, projects, offices, collaboration, new ideas (such as green initiatives). If you have been communicating consistently through the year, sharing more will not surprise your employees. I am sure due to the slowdown there might be better ways of managing work or sharing communication with your employees.

c)      Enlist the strength of your managers: Research indicates strong connection with your immediate supervisor and communicator needs to leverage this key factor. Provide all relevant information and resources for managers to share the news in a constructive manner. Research trends also point to a lack of trust among senior leadership and their messages. All the more reason to work peer to peer or manager with supervisee.

d)     Applauding credible effort of your employees: Most organizations have reached out to employees seeking their support and ideas to improve efficiencies and reduce costs. How many of these have lionized employees whose ideas were considered and implemented? How many were included into key organizational wide decisions or positions for future action?


 e) Giving your employees responsibilities and stretch assignments: Are your employees keen to contribute more? Have you checked on their interest in delivering on work over and above their routine assignments? Employees honestly want to give back more if engaged. Read the pulse and provide the right opportunities.

shot of a person running along the beach

shot of a person running along the beach

Thinking of a Career in Internal Communication?


This afternoon, a mail winged in from an advertising copywriting professional on his interest in internal communication.


Below are my responses to his questions. I am interested in your thoughts too.



Þ     What are the requisites for a career in internal communication?


Usually companies in India do not really select based on any specific requirements when it comes to internal communications – the reason being – this is a nascent subject in this part of the globe and there aren’t too many people in the industry who can truly work in this domain. That said, they expect the person to be coming in from a communications background – be it in advertising, public relations, direct marketing, journalism among others. You also need to have a good grasp of English, have excellent writing skills, leadership abilities, spot opportunities for communication, a dash of enthusiasm, lots of creative ideas and passion to take up what comes your way.

You will be asked to interface with internal clients and leadership and that requires you to be on your feet, juggling multiple responsibilities, crafting messages, understanding your audiences, planning, designing, communicating and measuring what you send out.

Today internal communication offers a wide spectrum of opportunities such as new media, crisis management, event planning and community building which at times overlap and even exceed the ambit of public relations. Internal communication is best understood by learning theory, concepts in communication, organizational behavior, communication planning and measurement.



Þ     Which are the major companies that hire people in this regard?


Most MNCs have a dedicated team which manage internal communication but there is a great deal of awareness among Indian organizations today as well when it comes to this critical domain. Usually, the corporate communication or the marketing & communication team will have individuals who manage internal communication as a separate portfolio or as part of their extended scope. Smaller organizations expect you to do more than just internal communication while larger ones will have you sufficiently occupied managing only internal communication!


Þ     And how do I approach companies?


Most of these jobs are never advertised. They are mainly through referrals and therefore it makes it tougher to get to know of these opportunities. My recommendation to you will be to read up and learn as much as you can about the subject. Then, look up and enroll on blogs and online business community networks which promote or talk of internal communication to get more insight into trends and recent developments.



Can internal communicators do more during crisis situations?

The Mumbai terror attacks paralyzed the nation and spurned the world to look at terrorism in a new vein. India’s 9/11 was covered extensively on all possible traditional and new media vehicles. The reach and dynamism of You Tube , Twitter, Flickr and other popular sites helped spread the word at the speed of thought.


While outraged citizens bayed for political heads to roll, it exposed the vulnerability of organizations – not only those which had operations in the city but had interests in other parts of the country and globe. Unprepared leaders reacted slowly, others shared information which employees received minutes after the siege started, some chose to ignore the sentiments and hoped it would pass while still others allowed rumors to run amok.


The timing of these attacks also proved the inability of some organizations to manage two different situations at the same time – the economic slowdown itself posed numerous challenges in communicating strong messages with its employees, for example, cost cutting measures and status quo on bonus and increments.


What could internal communicators do better in such scenarios? How can communication still continue in a tangible manner when life is so unpredictable?


I believe no crisis can be predicted but preparedness involves commitment and diligence even when life is under control. As internal communicators, we own a large chunk of the responsibility to ensure the lines of communication are open, the relevant communicators or their back-ups are available and messages are percolated in a coordinated manner.


There are a few potential opportunities which internal communicators must always keep a tab on.


a) Get leadership buy-in even if there is no direct impact on business and your organization does not have a center in the affected location. You can never say when the next disaster calls.


b) Monitor spikes in conversations around sensitive subjects and have a point of view – if you have informal distribution lists or a forum, enroll into the group or get the moderator to understand the relevance of internal communication. That also goes for external sites, blogs, alumni networks, social forums among others. This will help you map your messages with what employees are hearing or have heard.


c) Know your key ‘word of mouth’ influencers and provide them with enough material and messages. If you are aware of those who spread the word in the corridor and at the water coolers, connect 1:1 with them and get their confidence.


d) Put a message out from the leadership building in personal perspectives, what the organization is doing for the safety of its employees and how soon you can come back with an update. Employees want honest, direct and transparent communication. Don’t deny them. A regular leadership blog can help connect extensively with employees.


e) Revisit your basic communication plan which covers who, what, when, how and why of the messages. Empower managers to have conversations with their teams – research points to employees having more faith in their immediate supervisors than anyone else. Provide them with useful FAQ material. Create standard e-mail templates and drafts which they can use for sharing information. I have noticed a significant amount of time saving in thinking and framing sentences.


f) Are your internal systems up to date? At this crucial juncture, missing out on important employee data can result in losing precious time. Periodically update, conduct random checks all in the effort of ensuring currency of information.


g) Can you think of ways in which employees can contribute to the post crisis scenario? Maybe be by lending a helping hand with NGOs, displaced people, working with the local authorities on leveraging technology – ethical hacking for instance?


I chanced upon a discussion thread posted on Linkedin’s Marketing & Communication forum which called upon stringent measures at a macro level to overcome crisis. What it did not ask was ‘what can communicators do to improve basic connection in such scenarios’. I recommended we pool our resources and ideas to create meaningful messages to share with our stakeholders.


Your views?