Chief Counsel: Managing Staff Members Is Key to Surviving Crises

Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:16pm

Q: My boss is entrenched in a crisis (scandal, illness, rumors, etc.). How do I deal with staff during this stressful time?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: Your role as chief of staff will be put to the test if your boss is involved in a public crisis, especially one that threatens his or her position in elected office. During a time of crisis, your boss will need your guidance and management skills more than ever. At the same time, your constituents, the press and perhaps your party leaders are making excessive demands on your time and energy.

While you and the boss are pulled in multiple directions, the staff is often forgotten in the flurry. However, if you fail to pay close attention to your staff, your troubles will escalate even further. At best, you will lose valuable staff; at worst, information will leave your office that further damages the situation. It is, therefore, your responsibility to create an internal culture of transparency and control during this chaotic time.

When Members of Congress are ill or get caught in a scandal, the press is quick to break the story, often before staff is even aware. In the best-case scenario, you have a little time to prepare both your external and internal communications strategy. But if you are in the unfortunate position where you or staff members learn about a crisis from outside your office, you immediately need to place the same importance on staff communications as you do on your external messages. Schedule a staff meeting or conference call to discuss mutual expectations. Remember to include your district or state staff, as well as committee staff if appropriate.

What to Expect

What can the staff expect from you and the Member over the coming weeks? What do you expect from your staff and what will be the consequences if they do not follow the protocol you outline? How will office operations be different? Will critical staff be transferred to the state or district? Will job responsibilities shift and how? What process may be added or changed? Most importantly, provide an open forum where staff can ask difficult questions in a safe environment. If you do not surface these questions and bring your own answers, rumors and speculation will answer them instead.

Stress brings out the worst in all of us. Not only must you be mindful of your own behavior (and often apologize for the boss’s behavior), but you must think about how your stress level is affecting staff. Your staff is on the front lines and the stress created in the office may result in staff replicating that negative energy with your constituents and other stakeholders. They will look to you for clues on how to act. Put simply, treat your staff respectfully and they will be much more likely to treat others respectfully. In stressful times, we must be especially aware of this domino effect.

Any crisis will also bring about fears among staff about job security. While you or the Member may feel that loyalty demands that staff remain on board until the crisis passes, the reality is that many Hill staffers are one paycheck away from missing rent or mortgage payments, making fears about job security very real and requiring acknowledgement by the leadership in your office. It is essential to surface and discuss these concerns in an open forum.

Following the onset of the crisis, acknowledge this concern in a staff meeting. For example, you may say the following: “Many of you are probably concerned about what this means for you in your job and I cannot blame you if you are looking for another position. This is what we are prepared to do to keep you [and here you can offer specific details] and, if you do seek more stable employment, please let us know so that we can support you and prepare the office accordingly.—

Additionally, you may want to address the following questions: Were the boss to leave office, how long would staffers remain on payroll? What would the office do to support their job search and placement? If you don’t discuss these issues candidly and openly, those most concerned about the possibility of unemployment will begin looking for jobs immediately. Instead, by validating staff’s concerns, you will increase their loyalty and further your own awareness about the additional changes your offices will undergo.

Caught Off Guard

Perhaps the most frustrating part of a crisis is the lack of warning you will likely have and how caught off guard you might feel in a tough situation. It is okay to acknowledge this feeling with staff. Communicating your own questions is equally important as providing the answers you have. Simply tell staff members how you intend to go about getting the answers and when they can expect additional information from you.

Too often, chiefs of staff feel vulnerable when they do not have the answers and respond by not saying anything. Sadly, this simply appears to staff as hoarding information or mistrusting them. Again, transparency is best in these situations. By not even acknowledging the questions that are surfacing, you will begin to chip away at the loyalty and security they feel.

Finally, take care of yourself during a crisis. As the Member’s gatekeeper, you are entitled to ask the boss the toughest questions and feel concerned about your own job security, reputation and relationships. But regardless of your tenure in the office, you are allowed to experience the same emotions as more junior staff. Hopefully, if you are caught in this situation, you will already have earned the trust of your boss and he or she will initiate the difficult conversations. If not, start them. Your boss can only expect your loyalty and coverage if he or she exhibits the same to you.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.