TAMPA, Fla.—You're the leader of a successful company. Outside of the usual fluctuations in business, things are going well. Then tragedy strikes.
A co-worker is killed on his way to work. Or perhaps he perishes in a work-related accident. Or worse yet, maybe he and his family are victims of a larger, terrorist attack.
What do you do? How do you handle a crisis?
Bob VandePol, an expert in company crises, suggests executives engage in the ACT process: Acknowledge. Communicate. Transition.
“When tragedy strikes your workplace, people look at leadership, and they will take their cue from you,” said VandePol, the executive director of employee assistance and church assistance programs at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Mich. “How you respond will echo throughout all the tears.”
In his previous role at Crisis Care Network, VandePol managed the firm's Command Center in New York City after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and he regularly consults with businesses, universities and churches regarding organizational recovery following crises. He delivered a talk about crisis management and incident response at the recent Rubber Roller Group annual meeting in Tampa, Fla.
The first step, VandePol said, is one most people forget: Leaders must acknowledge the crisis.
“When a leader buries his head in the sand, doesn't acknowledge it, minimizes it, that ticks people off,” he said. “You need someone who can acknowledge it, use the real words, use the name (of the person involved in the tragedy), acknowledging the impact on people.”
He said by doing that, people pull together as a community and you as a manager demonstrate you care and that you are tough enough to handle the crisis.
VandePol cautioned that the impact of the crisis might affect employees in different ways. For example, it if involves the death of an employee, some may know the victim better than you. He advised that a manager only talk in terms of his relationship with that employee. “It shows you care.”
The next step perhaps is the most difficult: Communicate. “You have to be both competent and confident at the same time,” he said.
But he said only share what you know for sure. “Don't guess. Don't conjecture. Don't make anything up,” VandePol said, “because what you guess at, even if you don't say it, that will become gospel and multiply by 100 and spread.”
After some tragic events, he encouraged companies to hold a news conference. But he warned that only verified facts should be shared.
“It's OK to read a script,” he said. “Everybody understands it's tough.”