Employee comms vital to survival

In the past few weeks, the media reported a few instances of employee communications blunders that would make any communications pro cringe.

In the past few weeks, the media reported a few instances of employee communications blunders that would make any communications pro cringe.

A booklet produced for laid-off Northwest Airlines employees told them "not to be shy" about taking something that "looks good" from a neighborhood dumpster; Radio Shack told 400 employees - via e-mail - that they were being fired.

How isolated are these examples? Would your CEO or VP of HR ever allow something like this to happen? Are you sure?

Consider these scenarios and how your company would approach employee communications: A "non-core" division is sold to an unknown buyer; a key competitor launches a new product with significant perceived advantages over your most profitable product; a new CEO from outside the company (or industry) with a very different management style or reputation from your current CEO is appointed; a feared competitor launches a hostile takeover.

How would your CEO or HR leader communicate with employees? To be sure, a number of organizations immediately recognize the importance of proactive employee communications. At others, it's difficult to move past the creation of a few perfunctory internally focused messages. Many argue that the only thing that should be communicated to employees is a copy of the press release.

Today, companies are communicating with their employees more than ever and using a variety of new technologies and media to reach them. Despite this, the level of trust between employees and senior management continues to erode - with one survey showing that fully half of employees don't trust the messages they receive from senior management.

Why? And what implications does this have for business-critical issues like morale, retention, customer service, and safety?

For companies that struggle with these issues, there's one important message: It's not the vehicle or the frequency of communications that may be lacking, but the message itself. In employee communications, nothing is more important than sensitivity and candor.

Employees want to be treated as adults. They can handle "bad" or uncertain news as long as it's not hidden from them or shoved down their throats. They don't need fully fleshed-out strategies on day one of a new direction or challenge. However, they do want reassurance that their management team is on the case and is considering the impact on employees.

Smart companies deliver candid, yet sensitive messages to employees. They make prudent use of the tools they have available. They empower managers to communicate. They speak in a language that resonates. They educate employees on the compelling business rationale for change. And they don't let employees hear about significant developments via chat rooms or external blogs.

With the economy improving, the competition for talent heating up, and discretionary employee effort needed more than ever, only those companies that apply this kind of disciplined, yet caring approach to communicating with their employees will win.

Nick Kalm is founder and partner of Reputation Partners in Chicago.

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