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Navigating Crisis Management in the Workplace

4 min read
crisis managemet in the workplace

Crisis is inevitable; it’s not a matter of if, but when

One poll found that 69% of leaders had navigated a crisis within the last 5 years and 95% expected to face another crisis in the future. Now, as the world squares with the unprecedented difficulties of the novel coronavirus, businesses are more invested than ever in developing strategies for effective crisis management in the workplace.

Crises can come in any shape, form or size. Companies may face dire internal problems with operational systems, technology or leadership, or be caught up in larger global currents. How were businesses able to plan for such things as the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, the financial crisis of 2008 or natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina?

With a plan of action for how to deal with problems, employee training and communicative leadership, businesses can not only overcome present threats but use each crisis as an opportunity to show empathy and cultivate employee engagement. 42% of poll respondents reported that they were better off after facing a crisis. Here, we’ll think about the crisis management response that sets these organizations up for success even when the situation sets them up for failure.

The Role of HR in Crisis Management

While many companies safeguard their operation systems, infrastructure and public relations during a crisis, they may fail to account for the human side of crisis management —to the detriment of the organization. This is a time of many HR challenges.

As the department is responsible for promoting employee welfare, the role of HR in a crisis is to protect employee needs in planning, training and enacting crisis management. HR is uniquely positioned to make sure a company’s crisis plan reflects its culture, to understand the needs and skills of employees who will be asked to implement plans and to address people-related issues upfront.

HR is integral to every step of the crisis management cycle, from proactively identifying possible threats and offering employee training, to developing and enacting crisis management plans, to assessing the efficacy of the crisis response after the fact.

crisis management cycle

What is the Crisis Management Cycle?

The crisis management cycle is a process for dealing with emergencies or crises with three tiers: preparedness, response, and recovery. It’s usually depicted as a circle, with one step leading to the next.


Preparedness starts with anticipating high-risk problems for a particular business. This may vary widely; different circumstances may pose dire problems for particular sectors while leaving other industries untouched. 

With these situations in mind, companies can start contingency planning, whether this means stockpiling equipment and supplies for expected shortages, coordinating evacuation plans, or creating policies around sick leave.

Even before there is a crisis, companies should identify a dedicated crisis management team responsible for responding to emergencies and award them a budget so that when (and not if!) disaster strikes, they can hit the ground running. 


Once it becomes clear that a crisis is underway, the crisis management team can organize a response accordingly. It will be their duty to determine a plan of action, to communicate it clearly to employees and invested parties, and to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

Many crises cannot be anticipated (like COVID-19) which means each crisis management case will likely be different. To achieve the flexibility necessary to respond to any situation, businesses should designate lines of authority (who is in charge), means of coordination (how they communicate) and give key individuals the autonomy to react swiftly. Fluidity and a willingness to adjust course as new developments arise is key to crisis management.

Effective response teams will seek to:

1. Establish the Facts

During times of crisis, It is vital that businesses take the time to gather the facts of the situation and accrue data to better tailor their response. With more information, companies can better determine how the crisis will affect them in the long, short, and mid-term and strategize to mitigate the fallout. 

2. Collaborate Internally and Externally

Crisis management in an organization can be complex because of the number of people affected. Identify stakeholder groups: employees, customers, business partners, suppliers, shareholders, etc. How much information needs to be shared and with what frequency? It can be a delicate balance to keep all parties up to date without causing communication fatigue. The best strategy is to respond early and keep everyone in the loop about when updates will be issued. Show that the business is not just responding to a crisis, but actively managing it.

3. Communication, Communication, Communication

Communication is the key to effective crisis management in the workplace. A company’s messaging during a crisis should be consistent and authentic. Businesses should express sympathy and outline apprehensions and how they are being addressed. It will be vital to communicate with employees regularly. Transparency will help to foster engagement and win support.


As the crisis winds down, it will be important that the company support employees as things transition back to normal. This is a pivotal moment in emergency crisis management because it affords time for reflection. What went well with the response and what was ineffective? Leaders should take this time to consider how to improve the response for the next crisis.

crisis management

Leadership in Times of Distress

Leaders have an important role to play in crisis management. Research has determined five critical tasks at which that strong leaders excel in times of crisis:

    • Sense making: Appraise the situation and the level of threat.
    • Decision making: Take responsibility by making decisions independently and also know when to delegate.
    • Meaning making: Reduce uncertainty and show others what needs to be done.
    • Terminating: Determine when the emergency state is over and it is time to get things back to normal.
    • Learning: Guide efforts to learn from and improve efforts from one crisis to the next.

Leaders with these abilities can guide their businesses through the storm.

Crisis Management and COVID-19

Some crises cannot be prepared for. COVID-19 poses both a public health and economic crisis and has elicited legislative responses at the regional and national levels. It may be unclear as of yet how to move forward.

What is clear is that it is imperative that the HR department step up to build trust and emphasize the importance of human capital in a company’s crisis management strategy.  Effective crisis management in the workplace will build employee’s confidence in the company and ultimately help the business to succeed.

Your employees need your support more than ever. Focus on your crisis management plan rather than cumbersome HR processes.

Written by Valerie Slaughter; Edited by Tanya Lesiuk

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