Part 2 in our series of articles marking UK Mental Health Awareness Week (8-14 May): Supporting an organisation and its employees through crisis requires speedy ethical considered responses from HR, including coaching ‘in action’ says The Sun’s former HR director Carrie Birmingham


We live in a world of uncertainty and issues can quickly escalate into crisis in any business sector, as we’ve seen in recent examples, including the FirstGroup tram crash; recall of Samsung Galaxy smartphones, and mounting allegations of child abuse within football clubs.

When crisis strikes, there’s often no place to hide. Mismanagement and poor internal communication can be more damaging to employee engagement than the issue itself. HR professionals and other leaders need to act quickly, competently and ethically, offering support such as coaching in the moment. Yet there is not much advice available for what responses in these contexts should look like, as I found out myself.

When I was appointed HR director for The Sun, I felt afraid and overwhelmed. I joined at a time when more than 20 journalists in relation to Operation Eleven had been arrested and the newsroom was on edge about who would be next. I vividly remember typing “crisis HR” into Google, but found limited advice or support for what I was stepping into. Despite crisis leadership being an increasingly important core skill, there is precious little training for it,1 and it is largely unexplored by research.2 So most people, like me, learnt on the job.

This sense of fear and the experience that followed has led me to develop ‘Crisis HR’. This includes OD interventions focused on the system, and coaching ‘in action’ focused on individuals. Coaching in action enables the healthy expression of emotions in a crisis and encourages healing.


What is a crisis?

Crisis is a dramatic word, and when things get difficult, we often convince ourselves and others we are not in a crisis. I think of crisis as: “an event that brings, or has the potential for bringing, an organisation into disrepute”.3

Many events can create the risk of disrepute: financial irregularity; an accident; a suicide; employee misconduct, or a change project going off the rails. While this event can be significant, the potential for creating disrepute varies. In a small business, just one discrimination claim can create disrepute.


Coaching in action

When considering coaching as an organisational intervention, we tend to see it happening over an extended period, with regular ‘off job’ sessions focused on improving the overall capability of the client.

Within organisations, coaching in action regularly happens between employees, focused on a specific context aimed at getting the best outcome for all parties. Often based on a foundation of trust, it can be comparatively quick, and in the moment and so doesn’t conform to cohesive coaching models. In sports, we see coaches working on and off the pitch. If we define coaching broadly as ‘helping dialogue’ then coaching in action is what happens on the pitch.


Process and people

Responding to a crisis is the responsibility of the executive team, but few people have training or experience. Too often, organisations in the midst of the crisis focus on damage limitation and survival. They become preoccupied with the need to reassure shareholders, customers or regulators, forgetting that their own people also need reassurance and support.

Checklists and crisis management plans can be helpful starting points, but they usually focus on ‘what’ to do, eg, communicate to staff. However, in my experience, it is ‘how’ this is done, that makes the difference – and is my focus.

During a crisis, multiple conversations need to be choreographed. These conversations may be intended to impart knowledge, but they will stir up emotions. As human beings, we don’t check our emotions at the door and Marshak 4 describes the dangers of unexpressed emotions going underground and covertly impacting the organisation in the future. A crisis may touch families, employees, shareholders and customers, and so the definition of the client is broad. Coaching in action means creating a safe container for these individuals to make sense of what is happening, being present with them and encouraging their process.

There are a number of different types of conversation that might be needed. For me, Heron’s5 categories shape these helping dialogues:

  • Catalytic: This can mean enabling an employee to get in touch with their anger at a regulatory breach being allowed to happen. When employees are loyal to their organisation, they can be angry6 about ‘their’ organisation being damaged, and aren’t always conscious of this driving their behaviour. Coaching in action can raise awareness of this anger and its impact on behaviour.
  • Cathartic: In the event of a death, for example, this can mean sitting with a manager, while they express grief. In professional settings, staff are often embarrassed when they cry. A helping dialogue connects the manager with this emotion and invites them to understand how it could guide them to lead a team who are grieving for a lost colleague. This is preferable to burying the issue and leading from the head.
  • Prescriptive: In the event of a grievance, this can mean referring an employee to a doctor or therapist, when they confess to having ‘dark’ thoughts. While intended to resolve difficulties, the process of going through a grievance is deeply uncomfortable for all parties. It can surface deep and unspoken realities. Coaching in action requires noticing the signs of psychological distress and overcoming resistance to a referral.
  • Informative: For an employee charged with misconduct, it can mean talking to their family. This is an opportunity to relay messages to loved ones and it supports the employee by sharing the burden of telling people. Families can also find it comforting to talk to the organisation directly.


Wider organisation interventions

These dialogues are just a part of the answer; the handling of a crisis also requires wider organisational interventions to shift the system dynamics and culture. Based on our understanding of what humans need in a crisis, these can include:

  • Creating a crisis team that meets regularly and includes feedback loops, to spot themes, and be able to adapt to what is unfolding.
  • Leadership embodying their own humanity. Leaders will often cope with difficult messages by being overly logical and formal (operating from their heads). They need to be invited to use themselves as an instrument7 and express emotions in order to invite others to do so.
  • Creating opportunities for employees to channel and openly express their emotions. Bridges’ Change model8 talks of endings,
    losing and letting go and in some circumstances it is important to create mechanisms for these, eg, condolence books, farewell parties. Look for these opportunities.
  • Creating unstructured forums in a visible location for staff to drop in to ask questions or share an observation. Invite people to talk about their ‘sads, mads and glads’.
  • Research9 has shown that distressed employees tend to talk to their peer group. Networks and forums may already exist to enable peer group support (TRIM, STRAW or internal coaching networks). If they don’t, you may need to think more creatively about who staff will talk to, eg, union or staff associations, and how you can support those and share information with them.
  • Providing support for the individuals who are supporting others. Many HR teams have developed their coaching skills and so can provide helping dialogues in a crisis (see box on page 34 for why this is important).  



Doing the ‘right’ thing for staff in a crisis is an emerging discipline which brings together numerous fields of specialisms, eg, crisis management, PR, OD and coaching. In a crisis, people want openness, swift decisions and clear communication. But they also expect acknowledgement of what it feels like. Ignore the emotions being stirred up at your peril.


  • Carrie Birmingham has now left News International, setting up Carrie Birmingham Consult, offering support with transformation and crisis HR. For more information, go to: www.carrieconsult.co.uk


HR: we’re only human

As we start to look more closely at the role of both the line manager and the HR team, we have found that big assumptions are made that the HR title and department carries expertise and wisdom of such events.

Often, these teams can be understaffed, under-trained and with limited life experience to direct such matters. Yet we know that they are often the early response team, meeting family, breaking bad news, offering counsel, putting their listening skills to the test with no experience and little training. And we know that they are doing their very best and acting with the best of intentions.

The HR community, while their role is on one level to give to others, also need critical emotional support in place for them so that they are properly equipped to be resourceful to the many people who need their guidance in a period of uncertainty.

In our experience we strongly propose that every HR team needs a supervisor. After all, who HRs the HR? Think about it. The impact of not providing this emotional toolkit can be damaging for staff, the employee and family. Many people seem to overlook that they, too, are human after all.

You may be reading this thinking “not on my watch”. But as the Dalai Lama says: “We are human beings not human doings” and we all have a responsibility to keep an eye on the human beings.

Liz Nottingham, HR director, R/GA


References and further information

  1. E James and L Wooten, Leading Under Pressure, New York: Routledge, 2010
  2. F Frandsen and W Johansen, ‘The study of internal crisis communication: towards an integrative framework’, in Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 16(4), 2011
  3. O Lerbinger, The Crisis Manager: Facing Disasters, Conflicts and Failures,New York: Routledge, 2012
  4. R J Marshak, Covert Processes at Work, San Fancisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006
  5. J Heron, Helping the Client, London: SAGE Publications, 2002
  6. F Frandsen and W Johansen
  7. M Y Cheung-Judge, ‘The self as an instrument’, in OD Practitioner, 33(3), 2001
  8. W Bridges, Managing Transitions, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009
  9. N Greenberg et al, ‘Do military peacekeepers want to talk about their experiences? Perceived psychological support of UK military peacekeepers on return from deployment’, in Journal of Mental Health, 6, 2003
  • L Hall (Ed), Coaching in Times of Crisis and Transformation, London: Kogan Page, 2015
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