Employee comms is not a luxury during down times

A small item in last Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal reported that a town-hall meeting that had been planned for employees of the newly conjoined Merrill Lynch and Bank of America had been cancelled.

A small item in last Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal reported that a town-hall meeting that had been planned for employees of the newly conjoined Merrill Lynch and Bank of America had been cancelled. The article suggested the cancellation was a cost-saving measure, but also questioned the wisdom of the move “in the wake of a shotgun merger.”
 
The piece was far less electrifying than the other news of the past week that Merrill's brokerage chief resigned just after the acquisition was completed. That move is widely viewed as a major setback for the new entity, one that might make Merrill's famed “thundering herd” rethink its commitment to its new employer.
 
Employee communications is tough at best, and unfathomably difficult during a mega merger that is a by-product of acute financial distress on the part of the acquired company. Even for companies in less dramatic circumstances, there is a lesson here not to miss opportunities to communicate with this most critical of stakeholder groups.
 
There is a temptation to let employee-engagement initiatives slide when the job market goes cold, as if staffers will naturally be inclined to stick with their companies, however dissatisfied they are, rather than risk the uncertainty of a new job. But employees who are merely riding out a recession before launching a job search is the last group of people you want to retain. Conversely, the cost of recruitment or, worse, the risk of enforced attrition that means you can't rehire to replace a star who suddenly departs, should convince anyone that it is vital to hang on to the standout individuals. Even in the bad times, high performers will get poached.
 
One of the problems is that employee communications efforts frequently get caught up in the budget battles. Fortune's annual Best Companies to Work for feature has a lot to answer for; for the past two years it has lionized Google by focusing more on its free meals than on its development of a common mission that continues to make its staffers feel a part of something important. Now that the company is rolling back on some of its lavish perks, we will see how successful its engagement initiatives have really been.
 
The Journal asked, “How much does a town-hall meeting, even for a company of this size, cost, anyway?” But cost is not the point, even if it was the reason. Employees are looking for leadership, candor, and vision, not ROI. With all the digital channels available to us, there is no place or excuse to hide from your own staff.
 
Julia Hood is publishing director of PRWeek.

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