I put this one in the category of engagement fail. Another in the long line of social media crises caused by what used to be normal business decisions gaining a firestorm of protest online. Any business decision today is subject to online criticism with the potential of gaining serious momentum. Today it is happening to Royal Bank of Canada and a decision to replace 45 employees with outsourced (ie. “foreign”) workers.
But what I’d like to focus on is how RBC has attempted to quell the storm. Their response was to put their HR leader, Zabeen Hirji on TV to explain the position. The resulting video (view the interview through this link) provides a great case study in the importance of clear, concise communication and good media training.
The interview is mostly a failure, in my mind. No doubt Ms Hirji is a very talented executive or she would not rise to a position like this. But to quell a firestorm like this more was needed than she could provide. Here’s where I would fault her performance:
– non-verbal language — we all know how important this is. From the over-gestures, to the somewhat severe expression, to the overall tenor she does not communicate the care, concern and strength needed to be successful
– lack of clarity–what is her message? It is very confusing. The problem is that the official line of the company is confusing because here is the specific language used by the CEO Gordon Nixon in a memo to employees about this:
I would like to provide you with some context about this story and assure you that RBC has not hired temporary foreign workers to take over the job functions of these employees.
In this case, we have a contract with a vendor to support specific technology requirements, which impacts approximately 45 employees.
In keeping with standard business practices, when transitioning activities, our vendor has temporarily assigned a number of their employees onsite at RBC to affect this transition with a small number remaining on a go forward basis.
It seems quite simple: 45 people are losing their jobs (they may get transitioned to other jobs) and the work they were doing is now coming under a contract with a vendor. They could have said that much more clearly and simply. Instead, they come across as trying to “spin” (God, I hate that word) and put some lipstick on a pig. Just say it.
– Justification. Ms. Hirji does try to justify the decision in terms of productivity. But, in the process she says some very strange things (at least to me):
“productivity improvements are something that happen as much in the private sector as in the public sector.”
Now, maybe that’s Canada and not the US but to refer to productivity improvements in the government sector in the US is going to generate at least a few wry smiles if not outright guffaws. I just don’t know what she was trying to say here.
This comment was made in response to a question about the profits the bank is making and why the bank would be cutting employees when it is making so much money.
The point of all this is that communication matters. Clear, effective communication is still critical. Without knowing the situation more, I would venture some advice that may be helpful to others when facing this.
1. I would not have put Ms. Hirji in that position, at least not without some very intense media training focused on her non-verbal communication.
2) Anyone put on camera would need to focus on key messages and be trained to stay with those.
3) Key messages:
1) We have 57,000 employees and that means evaluating, reassigning, retraining is part of our every day work.
2) To remain competitive and provide the service our customers and country expect requires vigilant focus on productivity–and that at times means making changes to improve productivity. That is what is happening here.
3) Change can be difficult and some wish to complain about that publicly. We understand that but we will continue to work with those experiencing change to minimize the impacts on their lives and careers.