Engage Your Employees During Today’s Tough Times

Stacey.jpgBy Diane Streleckis - It’s no secret that internal communications these days faces enormous challenges. In 2024, employee trust in their employers barely exceeds 50%, a drop of nine percentage points from 2023, according to the Edelman Trust Index. Employees expressed uncertainty about their leaders’ ability to provide a workplace where they can thrive or even remain employed.

This heightened level of anxiety and skepticism highlights the criticality of the organization’s internal communications function of informing, educating, engaging and retaining talent, which maximizes productivity and leads to the achievement of business goals. 

What can internal communication professionals do to get those informative, educational, and engaging messages across to employees? Ruder Finn Senior Vice President Stacey Hajdak shares some ways she’s discovered during her 25+ years in the communication field.

Create a “trust account” during business-as-usual times

“Trust isn’t built with any one event,” Hajdak said. “Receiving trust from employees and all your stakeholders during challenging times is hard if the foundation isn’t strong.  It’s like trying to withdraw money from an empty account. The time to think about earning trust and building credibility is when things are stable. You’ve got to build a trust account over time.” Hajdak emphasized that the lead communicator must also establish trust with the chief executive, creating a relationship that can pay big dividends, especially in a crisis.

Be honest and transparent in communications

Hajdak stressed that a core ingredient of earning employees’ engagement with internal communications is transparency, especially when you have difficult news to share.

“You have to be honest, straightforward, and upfront,” she said. “Advocating with leaders to get ahead of any bad news is key, but the reality is, it’s not always easy.” She noted that this approach goes for every audience, not only an internal one. “Whether it’s your employees, investors, customers or vendor partners, be proactive and approach the situation with empathy,” she said.

Make sure you’re at the table

“What I don’t love is when a communication professional gets handed a decision that they haven’t been a part of making and told ‘Figure out how to say this.’ Establish yourself as a thought partner who can see all angles of an issue, anticipate how it will be perceived from different stakeholder vantage points and provide your best candid, strategic counsel, even if you think it’s not what the leader wants to hear.”

Help leaders diffuse defensiveness

When something goes awry in a company, it’s only human for leaders to try to defend their decisions. But that posture can alienate the people leaders want to reach most.

“Often, executives are flooded with siloed opinions and perspectives and can feel an urgency to react too quickly,” Hajdak said. “It’s helpful for them to have the chance to evaluate all dimensions of a situation holistically. Work to build a relationship with your executives that allows you to shut the door with them and say, “Let’s think through this together.’”

Train middle managers during quieter times

Hajdak noted that middle managers often bear the brunt of the messaging load in times of change. “There’s so much expected of people managers, and a large part of an employee’s perception of the organization is formed through the quality of the relationship with their manager,” she said.

She recommended providing tailored training and communications for people managers, thus equipping them with resources to communicate with their teams before any issues or crises arise. A key part of that training should include emotional honesty, according to Hajdak.

“People managers need to know they have the license to say to their teams, ‘Look, I know this is hard. I’m sure you feel upset.’,” she said. Helping people understand the why behind the decision, honestly and with empathy, can go a long way, Hajdak pointed out. “You have to equip people managers with a strong understanding of the topic you’re asking them to discuss with teams and provide tools to help them be most effective and deliver a consistent but personalized message,” she said. “Remember, those first-line supervisors are some of your very best people.”

Form a stakeholder sounding board group

Internal communications professionals tend to have good gut instincts about how a message will land, Hajdak noted. But she said that’s the starting point.

“The diligence of having conversations with a small group of reliable employees can help you better understand how customers, investors, and other stakeholders, as well as employees themselves, might react, and what they might ask about in times of change,” she said. It helps communicators be more prepared.

Don’t hesitate to call in reinforcements

“As a communications lead, a lot of responsibility and ownership falls on your shoulders,” said Hajdak. “Bringing in an outside partner can be valuable because they can serve as an experienced, strategic thought partner, as well as extra horsepower to help implement your internal communications program.”

Hajdak also pointed out that agencies and consultancies bring a broad, useful perspective. “In my in-house roles, I always leaned on my agency partners to bring fresh thinking and to leverage their experience with multiple clients across multiple industries. They can also introduce industry research and best practices. This type of support can help bring out the best in a communications team and program,” she said.


Diane Streleckis is a writer and content strategist dedicated to using the power of words for good. Understanding what makes people tick and then sharing practical ideas to help support their needs and concerns is Diane’s mission. She’s applied this mission mindset across industries for more than 30 years.