The phone rings. It's one of the managers at your company. "There's a mob out here," he says. "What should I do?"
"What do you mean, a mob?" you ask.
"Twenty people just marched into the store and started chanting. Listen." The panicked manager holds up his cellphone, and the noise sounds hectic. "A bunch of people are shooting video with their phones. What do you want me to do?"
This is a call HR professionals dread. In today's political environment, disruptions like these are occurring more frequently. An unsuspecting employer can quickly find itself on the wrong side of a hot-button issue and in the middle of a workplace disruption. Disruptions often become news events and are a favorite tool of labor unions and other protest groups.
If you were on the other end of the line, what advice would you give?
First, it's important to understand the repercussions of a workplace disruption. For one thing, it can lead to legal problems, as protestors often are trained to dupe ill-prepared managers into breaking the law, such as by goading managers into threatening to fire them. It also often leads to lost work time and revenue. Furthermore, a disruption can destroy customer relationships and hurt a company's image. And if you respond poorly, it can cost you the trust of your team and harm employee morale and engagement.
That's why managers need some simple, practical tools for properly responding to these situations. Here is a six-step model to help companies respond effectively to a workplace disruption:
1. Prepare. Make sure your managers know your corporate guidelines and protocol for responding to a disruption. Often, your loss prevention or security team will lead this work. This includes things like understanding who to call and drafting simple "holding statements" for the media and others. Also, make sure your managers know and have marked your property lines and have secured schedules, lists and other sensitive documents.
2. Do no harm. A workplace disruption can be emotional. Protestors often count on this as a way to get more publicity for their cause. During a disruption, protestors may try to provoke a company leader into becoming the next YouTube sensation. They may call out managers or make outrageous claims about the company. It is human nature for leaders to try to defend the reputations of the company and team they care about.
Protestors count on these natural emotions to take over. Leaders must learn to remain calm and resist the urge to debate or fight back during a workplace disruption. They shouldn't get baited into taking an action that will reflect badly on them—and the company—forever. They should avoid making statements on camera or taking any action to physically restrain a protestor. Leaders must project calm, control and concern.
Remember that if your employees are involved in the protest, this is almost always protected concerted activity and you cannot discipline them for engaging in it. If you believe that a worker is violating company policy, you will want to document that fact. But this is not the time to counsel employees on company policy. Focus on getting the situation under control and you can deal with disciplinary issues later.
Leaders also must be aware that a disruption is often used to misdirect the attention of security, management and staff. During a disruption, some protestors may try to access secure areas, get confidential information, hide or scatter propaganda, or even scout the facility for future disruptions.
3. Secure. The leader's job is to make sure that all employees, customers and the protestors themselves remain safe, while at the same time protecting company property. This means the leader must be prepared to limit access to secure areas of the building, like the back office, computers and private workstations. The leader should also know when and how to engage law enforcement. Because these situations can get out of hand quickly, the leader needs to have a plan for delegating some of these tasks to others.
4. Restore. Once the protestors leave—on their own or, more rarely, with an escort from law enforcement—and the building is secure, it is important to restore things as best you can to a normal state. Employees and customers will often be rattled. Talk with them and let them know what you're doing to get things back to business as usual. Again, remain calm and in control. During this phase, you also want to sweep the area looking for any damage, leaflets, graffiti or other problems.
5. Report. Once things are back to normal, document everything that happened in detail. Get copies of any literature that the protestors distributed. Be careful about shooting video of co-workers (check with your company and labor attorney about your policies here), especially if the protest relates to a union-related issue, because that can be considered unlawful surveillance.
6. Engage. The most important step in the process—and the one most often overlooked—is to engage with employees and customers after the disruption. Reassure them and continue to remain calm and in control. Let them share any concerns, and apologize for any inconvenience. Let them know how important they are to the organization, and use this shared experience as a way to increase connection.
Workplace disruptions are never fun. They are designed to be as stressful and emotional as possible. That's why it is important that managers get an opportunity to practice these steps in a simulated experience. If you train managers on these six steps, they will be prepared for disruptions in your workplace. It won't make those initial phone calls any easier, but your team will be a lot calmer knowing they've got a plan in place.
Phillip Wilson is president and general counsel of Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.