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7 min read

As leaders, communicating with your employees is a crucial step every day, but especially in times of uncertainty. When the UK decided to leave the European Union (EU), the event now known as “Brexit” affected the emotions and mindset of Reward Gateway’s employees - particularly in the UK and Bulgaria. And as Brexit continues to make its impact across the world, it won’t be the last time leaders are faced with the dilemma of properly handling potential crisis communications.

When the tension runs high, it can be tempting to hide in the corner and wait, but as leaders, that’s simply not an option.

Here’s what CEO Glenn Elliott and Group Reward Director Debra Corey did to keep employees engaged - and informed.

Reward Gateway: What was your first thought when you heard the news about Brexit?

Glenn Elliott: Well, it was 5:15 a.m. so I was still a bit drowsy when my alarm went off and I saw the news notification. Two thoughts ran through my head: What does this mean for my own family (my partner is Danish), and what does this mean for RG?

I really had to stop and think for a minute whether or not it was appropriate for me, in my role as CEO, to take any kind of action. The question wasn’t, “is this a crisis,” but rather, “is this my crisis?”

Debra Corey: My first thought was, what should and can the business do to support our employees during this time of uncertainty? In “normal” political situations I’ve shied away from putting forward comments or views, but it was apparent early on that this was different, and that this required immediate action on the part of the company.

Reward Gateway: What are the most important steps in creating a communications plan in times of uncertainty?

Glenn: With anything I do in my role, I think of two things: our employees, and our customers. What we decided to communicate, and how we decided to get that message across, needed to keep my staff and my company in a positive place.

Knowing who to turn to in times of uncertainty is key. I owe big thanks to our PR Manager Charlie Lofthouse, who was on social networks the moment after I messaged her to get her thoughts on our approach. Priority one was assessing the mood and feelings of our people so she turned straight to Facebook to check the public feeds of our staff. By the time I got dressed I had a wealth of messages from social networks in my inbox. And by the time I got to the office, I knew how the majority of our staff were feeling: angry, confused and emotional. I felt more confident in our decision to speak up on the issue and knew where to start with the message, which was critical if I was to help lead our employees to a better place.

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Debra: As with any communications plan, you need to start with clear objectives, asking yourself and the business, what are you trying to achieve through your communications? With Brexit, we had four:

  1. Lead. As in, lead employees that might be emotionally affected by the news to a slightly better place. Glenn referred to this as “getting us out of the darkness.” 
  2. Address. Address the three key concerns of our employees: (1) That our company and products were resilient and would survive any economic crisis to follow. (2) To our team in Bulgaria (the EU) that we would continue to value them as colleagues, and that their jobs were safe. (3) That although we can’t control the political side of the crisis, we can control how we conduct our business and how we behave. 
  3. Reconnect. As a global company, it was important that we all felt connected to one another, no matter which way we voted. 
  4. Refocus. We ended the message by refocusing our team on our business, our customers and of our mission: We have a job today. We need to deliver great service to clients today like any other day and we need to continue our mission: “Let’s make the world a happier place to work.”

Reward Gateway: How did you deal with the political side of Brexit?

Glenn: This was tricky for me. I had posted on my video blog prior to the vote as I’d heard that employees wanted to know my thoughts on Brexit. So I had already carefully, thoughtfully, put my opinion out there. Usually, I avoid politics and religion as it’s so personal. But my employees are accustomed to, expect and value a very open and honest culture, so I felt it would be dishonest to not answer the one question on their minds.

I had to give my opinion, but respect that not all my staff felt that way. So my job was to try to bring us back together, not to pour oil on already troubled waters.

Debra: At Reward Gateway we have a high level of trust, so in order to maintain this it was important for Glenn to deal directly with the situation. However, this may not be appropriate in all organizations due to the culture or expectations of your employees. Bottom line, consider the impact of your message and do and say what you believe is best for your employees and your business.


Reward Gateway: How important was the medium for your communications, and how did you choose it?

Glenn: We chose a video blog for a few different reasons. The first is that since more than half of our workforce has English as their second language, we felt that a video would be easier to understand than a long article. Second, because our workforce is more than 80% composed of millennials (the YouTube generation), video is widely accepted. Lastly, since this was fairly emotionally charged, I felt that the staff needed to see my face, hear the seriousness in my voice and see that I was speaking from the heart.

Debra: Your message needs to be heard, and it needs to be understood, so choosing the correct medium is absolutely critical. The key is going back to your objectives and asking yourself which medium will best help you achieve them. We used video primarily for the reasons Glenn cited, and to improve our chances of the message being understood, we also pushed it out on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our internal communications platform, SmartHub (which we call boom! internally) which our employees usually check daily.


Reward Gateway: What should your next steps be? 

Glenn: This is the hardest part. Once you’ve said your piece, you wait, and you stay quiet. The reaction to our communication was really fast — within 24 hours we had more than 5,000 views on LinkedIn, hundreds of likes, dozens of comments and nearly 40 shares. I got a lot of feedback (and eCards through our social recognition platform) for what we put out, but I knew that I should avoid making the divide between voters any worse by throwing my weight into the debate. You have to be careful being CEO, your voice is loud and powerful. You don’t want to alienate part of your workforce by making them feel you dislike how they feel on what is a matter for personal choice and conscience.

As a leader, you need to be aware that your actions carry extra weight. So every “like” you post, or comments you make are heard loudly - use them carefully.

Debra: In times of uncertainty it’s even more critical to take a cautious and thorough approach in your next steps. Each and every word is read and scrutinized, so this needs to be taken into consideration. A few key things to keep in mind are to:

  • Listen. Listen to what’s happening around you, and find out what your employees are saying or not saying. Social media can be a godsend here.
  • Understand. Take the time to understand why people feel how they do. Face-to-face conversations are great at this and they help validate what you see on social media.
  • Empathize. Go out there and show your employees that you’re with them, and show that you’ve heard them. Don’t dismiss feelings or try to brush them under the carpet, but deal with them.
Chloe Thompson

Chloe is the Head of Global Content Strategy and Thought Leadership at Reward Gateway. She has a strong penchant for great food, better wine (especially if it sits alongside a cheese plate) and dancing around her kitchen to musical theatre tunes.

Head of Global Content Strategy and Thought Leadership

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