Current events

Addressing current events at work: The good, the bad and the necessary

Current events can be hot-button topics that often affect different people in unique ways, and therefore have an impact on daily business operations. But where’s the line between “This shouldn’t be a work conversation” and “This is affecting our employees’ productivity and wellbeing?”

There’s a place for addressing current events at work, and it should be part of your overall communication planning and strategy.

The 411 on current events at work

It is completely natural that discussions about current events will take place within your organization among employees. This can include topics such as:

  • Hard news events occurring at the local, state, national or international level (examples: Russia-Ukraine war, natural disasters, etc.)
  • Events impacting public health, economy or public institutions (examples: pandemic and inflation)
  • Political, social and cultural issues (examples: legislation and elections)

Historically, company leaders may have viewed current events that do not directly impact the company as irrelevant and not issues to discuss in the workplace.

However, this position has evolved as workforce expectations change. Today, more companies recognize that some current events, although perhaps outside the scope of business operations, can impact their employees in a number of ways:

Why is this?

  • With the rise in hybrid work and remote work, there’s less of a hard divide between employees’ work and personal lives.
  • The 24/7 news cycle and heightened use of social media can increase employees’ exposure to and awareness of current events, which can raise stress and anxiety about these topics.
  • Younger generations of workers (especially Generation Z) have greater expectations for their employer to display corporate citizenship – meaning, getting involved in the community, taking stands on issues and modeling values that, ideally, align with theirs.

As a result, it can be challenging to identify current events that don’t impact employees, and thereby employers, in some way.

Benefits of addressing current events at work

The inclusion of guidelines for handling current events within your company’s communications plan provides important benefits for any business:

  • Outlines a plan of action for what, when and how to communicate, if at all
  • Shifts your business from a reactive to a proactive mindset
  • Creates consistency in your company’s response
  • Gives employees an idea of how you, as their employer, might respond to a future event, which can convey that the company is staying on top of evolving news and events
  • Helps employees to feel seen, valued, respected and supported through difficult times
  • Fosters a strong connection between employees’ professional and personal lives, leading to a positive impact on long-term wellbeing goals
  • Shows responsiveness to employee expectations for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and engagement

Ensuring a thoughtful, consistent response to current events across the entire organization helps cultivate a positive company culture and an employee experience worth showcasing. And if your company publishes an annual CSR report, it may provide you with an opportunity to weave in compelling stories that demonstrate the heart and values of the organization from your employees’ point of view.

From an employer brand standpoint, few resources are more powerful when it comes to recruiting and attracting talent.

How to address current events at work

So, how do you get started incorporating these guidelines into your communications plan? Your company has two potential courses of action for dealing with current events:

  1. Forego communications about current events that do not directly impact the company.
  2. Communicate about specific, relevant current events.

If you decide to forego all communications on current events, explain this to employees up front, along with the rationale behind your decision. Insert a written statement explaining this position in your communications plan.

The worst approach would be silence without explanation. If you leave blanks, employees will undoubtedly make assumptions. Employees can misinterpret your organization’s silence as:

  • Simply not caring about a specific issue
  • Being out of touch with current events
  • Not appropriately prioritizing people and community within the broader business context

Choosing to communicate about current events doesn’t necessarily mean that your organization is taking a definitive stance for or against something, which can carry its own risks in today’s political landscape. For most companies, this simply means that you’re acknowledging the current event and offering support to employees.

Confirm which types of current events you will address

At a high level, reference the types of current events your company will communicate about in your communications plan. Consider:

  •  Issues that your employees have shared are impactful to them and their families
  • Potential connections between current events and your unique employee population
  • Issues that have the potential to eventually have a more direct impact on your business, customers or local community

Between an absence of communication and full communication regarding current events, there is no right or wrong answer across the board – it’s about what works best for your company given your unique:

By defining which types of events you will address in advance, you’re less likely to be caught off guard and unsure whether or how to react to a current event. If an employee has questions or concerns that some topics are given more weight than others, you can point them toward your documented company policy.

Select communication messaging, methods and frequency

Much of this will depend on the size of your business, the specific event and how quickly information evolves. In many cases, a one-time communication will suffice.

The most common delivery methods that companies use to discuss current events include:

  • During a company-wide meeting (in person or virtual)
  • Within the context of small group or one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports (in person or virtual)
  • Recorded message from company leadership
  • Email
  • Company intranet posting
  • Internal social exchange posting

Leadership should decide on the content of messaging, and it should cascade down through the organization in a prepared process.

Extend support to employees

If you decide to communicate about certain current events, the general sentiment you’ll try to aim for is: We’re aware of the issue and are listening to employees. The company cares about your wellbeing and wants to support you.

It’s simple acknowledgement of an external event that may be a factor in someone’s life, competing with work for their attention and peace of mind. It’s also a way to express empathetic leadership.

Let employees know about available resources to help mitigate their stress or anxiety related to a current event, such as:

Coach leaders on how to have conversations with employees after tough or negative events and how to foster a mindset of resilience within their teams.

A note on PTO: If employees have available PTO in their leave bank or are willing to take unpaid leave, treat it as any other PTO request and allow them the time off to process a difficult current event that’s impacted them – within reason.

Continue listening

Solicit feedback from your employees on a regular basis, so you:

  • Keep a pulse on what your employees think
  • Discover which topics matter most to them
  • Understand employee perspectives about how your organization handles internal communication

This can be accomplished as part of an annual corporate culture survey or pulse survey, or as a company townhall meeting.

Before you ask for employee feedback, make sure they know it is not possible to implement every suggestion. Otherwise, you risk the appearance of not listening – the opposite of your goal in soliciting feedback – and they may resist participating in future feedback sessions.  

Be prepared to handle heated discussions of current events among employees

As mentioned, current events are more casually and frequently discussed among employees. That’s fine – until there are disagreements and heated arguments, which can be disruptive to the workplace. Be prepared to diffuse tensions associated with discussions about current events in the workplace.

The situation can become contentious when employees talk politics, which of course are closely related to current events.

Have a separate policy about political speech and activity in the workplace that can help guide you in controlling these discussions and limiting their effect on workplace morale. Frequently remind employees of your organization’s core values, including respect for others and the courteous exchange of ideas, as well as anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Summing it all up

The days of “If it’s not directly work related, we don’t have to plan for it” have likely passed – or, at least, have become a bit murkier. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the workplace, but increasingly more employees expect their employers to acknowledge current events that concern them and their interests outside of work.

Whether your organization sticks to a position of non-communication or opts to communicate regularly with employees about current events, you need to account for this in your communications plan and explain why you’ve adopted this stance.

To learn more about other policies and plans that can benefit your workplace and help you avoid unnecessary conflict, download our free e-book: 10 must-have HR policies that no business can do without.

10 must-have HR policies that no business can do without
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