Job market rebound boosts efforts to engage employees

Wal-Mart got some positive buzz in early June when it announced a new partnership with online school American Public University that benefited its own employees.

Wal-Mart got some positive buzz in early June when it announced a new partnership with online school American Public University that benefited its own employees. The Lifelong Learning Program enabled the retail giant's associates to receive discounts on tuition and college credit for their work in Walmart stores. It is just one example of how corporations are using various tools to retain and motivate their people.

Deisha Galberth, Wal-Mart's corporate communications director, says: "It will help folks do a better job at Wal-Mart, but also in life." The program has been well-received so far, with thousands of associates going to a launch meeting and accessing a dedicated website to learn more.

Improving signs
As the economy improves, such employee engagement is an increasingly important issue, one in which communications pros play a unique role.

One useful bellwether is the government's statement that, for the first time in 15 months, more employees quit their jobs in April than were laid off. This is a sign the job market is improving and more employees are once again confident enough to quit.

Linda Clarke, MD at digital communications agency Horn Group, says, "The market is picking up and employees who have been focusing on keeping the jobs they have might suddenly find themselves with opportunities outside the company."

This, she adds, means companies must show they value staff if they want them to stick around. Companies can introduce education or fitness programs, more on-the-job training, or CSR and philanthropic endeavors, several communications pros suggest.

But Carreen Winters, EVP of corporate communications at MWW Group, notes that day-to-day communications is at the center of employee engagement, which she looks at as a bull's-eye.

"People care most about what directly affects them in their job," she says, explaining that companies must directly communicate what is expected or what changes are happening with specific jobs.

"What comes next in that circle is what they need to be successful at their jobs," such as on-the-job training, she adds. After that, CSR programs that affect the outside world make up the out-side of the bull's-eye.

NBC's iVillage is introducing a volunteering program with nonprofit Citizen Schools to mentor underprivileged middle-school students and engage its employees, says Jodi Kahn, EVP of the women's web portal, who notes that the team has participated in parent company GE-sponsored events in the past.

"But this idea of doing it from an iVillage standpoint, where everyone can feel they are engaged and giving back, is clearly something that adds dimension to why it is special to be part of our team," she says. "We always seek ways to build our commitment to each other and get people to see their colleagues differently."

That team mentality is important to engaging employees, adds MWW's Winters.

"There has been a fundamental shift in who employees trust," she says. "The peer-to-peer influence has fundamentally challenged the traditional top-down model of employee communications."

Aligned messaging
Communications teams - both internal and agency-side - can help companies align their employee interaction with overall communications and messaging.

Horn Group's Clarke notes that HR often oversees employee communications and reports to the CFO or COO, whereas communications departments usually report to the CMO or CEO.

"You really do need to make extra effort to ensure the employee communications folks, as well as investor communications, are very much in line," she says.

Sherry Scott, a consultant with Gagen MacDonald, which specializes in employee and organizational communications, highlights the opportunity for expansion when agencies work with clients' internal teams to make the most of employee communications.

"With more strategic communications, companies can demon-strate loyalty with employees and make headway in building cultures and relationships," she says. "That will help them grow during the economic recovery."

How to engage employees

1. Research
Wal-Mart and iVillage asked staffers what they wanted and needed before launching their programs. Know what motivates employees before jumping in

2. Work with HR
Communications pros can help HR coordinate messages and align staff outreach with overall communication goals

3. Keep employees informed
New programs and straight news about the company should always be communicated to staff, just as if the company was communicating with external stakeholders

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