Making Employee Communication Work: Recognizing Employees as a Core Constituency within Work Organizations Is Central to Creating and Maintaining Open Communication and Helping Regain the Trust and Credibility of Line Employees and Supervisors
Guiniven, John E., The Journal of Employee Assistance
We all know the parlor game where one person whispers a message into the ear of a second person, who then whispers what he or she heard into the ear of a third person. The game continues in this manner until the last person speaks the message aloud to all the players, who generally howl with laughter because the final message is so totally different from the one that was first conveyed.
The same sort of thing is happening every day at organizations throughout the United States, only it is not a game and it is not funny.
Lack of communication and ineffective communication are contributing to problems in the workplace, where Carl Kaysen (1996) found "sullen, uncooperative workforces," Lester Thurow (1996) said "growing cynicism, mistrust and anxiety [exist] even among those entering the workforce with MBAs," and Roger D'Aprix (1996) painted a picture of employees who have "little or no loyalty to employers." Harris Interactive, part of the Harris Poll, found that only a third of workers have "a clear understanding" of what their organization is trying to accomplish, only 20 percent have a clear "line of sight" between their tasks and their organization's strategic goals, and just 17 percent feel their organization "fosters open communication" (Covey 2004).
There is a disconnect between those at the top and those at the bottom, leading to disengaged workers who cost U.S. businesses between $290 and $350 billion annually Perhaps more disturbing, the disconnect also exists between those at the top and those in the middle, between the policy-setters and the supervisors and middle managers charged with turning policy into reality. These supervisors and middle 'managers are the frontline communicators--nearly a third of workers' decisions are based on communications from their supervisors, compared to just 5 percent on directives from the CEO or other top management. Supervisors and middle managers also feel abandoned, to the point where, increasingly, they are identifying with workers and their complaints rather than with executives and organizational goals (Lukaszewski 2004).
The system is broken, and the purpose here is to explain how it got that way and offer suggestions to fix it. A central point is that human resources professionals need to get involved, strategically and managerially, in employee communications.
Martin Gannon (1999) and his team identified three eras of human resources management; in earlier research, C. J. Dover (1964) identified a like number of eras in employee communications. They paralleled each other for a while, and then a break occurred that has caused human resources management and employee communication to be out of sync for the past several years.
In 1911, Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management and ushered in the man-as-ox era, where the prevailing thought was that inherently lazy workers had to be coerced into doing an honest day's work. That approach lasted into the 1950s, the post-war boom period in which workers had leverage and it was hard to intimidate men who had just come back from war. Employers adopted a behavioral approach, and a kinder, gentler workplace existed into the 1970s.
Then, human resources management became economic-based Pension plans started exercising their considerable muscle, individuals began entering the stock market in droves (largely through 401(k) and other retirement programs), and executive compensation became tied to the performance of the company's stock. These developments forced businesses to put shareholders first. In addition, global competition began to take root, which meant companies also had to be keenly aware of the need to cut costs to keep prices low and satisfy customers. Employees thus became seen as a cost. Downsizings, outsourcings, part-time workforces--all are manifestations of the economic approach to human resources management.
The first internal communications programs, meanwhile, were launched in the 1940s, which Dover called the entertainment era. Basically, company newsletters published the "three B's"--bowling, birthdays, and babies--in an attempt to help human resources policies move away from the man-as-ox era.
In the 1950s, the entertainment era gave way to the information era, in which companies began to recognize employees as intelligent beings and generally sought and welcomed their input. Employers went a step further in the 1960s, enlisting their employees to help respond to consumer protests and increasing government regulations.
The break occurred during the next decade, the 1970s. Human resources management became economics-based; internal communications, on the other hand, stayed mired in an era that no longer existed. In the face of massive lay-offs, internal communications stayed with a behavioral approach, continuing to describe a family atmosphere in the workplace. Supervisors and middle managers who avoided the budget-cutters' axe saw their spans of control doubling and tripling because so many of their colleagues did not survive. Their frustration with top management grew to where it matched that of the overall workforce, and their effectiveness as prime communicators was lost.
Thus evolved the situation described by Kaysen, Thurow, and D'Aprix and detailed by the Harris Poll. I found the same thing in 18 focus groups I conducted with 287 supervisors and managers at nine disparate companies over the past five years.
Vince, for example, is a 53-year-old supervisor at an automotive parts manufacturer. When I asked him to describe communications at his company, he slapped his palms down on the table in front of him and said, "I don't believe half what they tell me, and the other hall's irrelevant." Then, almost to himself, he added, "I just wish they'd tell me the things my team needs to know."
SUGGESTIONS FOR A FIX
Most top managers want effective communication; in fact, most probably think they have effective systems in place. They don't, so here are some steps worth considering:
1. Take internal communications out of the hands of public relations, if that's where it resides, and put the responsibility in human resources. Since the 1970s, shareholders and customers have become higher-priority publics for many organizations than their own employees. Most PR departments are focused on those groups, which means announcements are written to address their concerns first and employees' concerns second, if at all.
For instance, I studied internal announcements from 22 firms that downsized. Each one linked its personnel cuts to the need to improve productivity, meet global competition, or keep costs and prices down--economic reasons, perfect for communicating with shareholders and customers. But for employees, downsizing is not economic; it's highly personal, akin to a death in the family To ignore that is to invite further erosion of trust and commitment and lose many employees you want to keep. (EA professionals will be interested to know that all 22 companies provided counseling for employees being hid off, but none provided it for those left behind, who needed it to deal with the guilt and grief that accompanied their survival.)
2. Make sure every communication program is two-way. Companies put up suggestion boxes and schedule town hall meetings and think they've covered the bases, but participants at my focus groups considered suggestion boxes a joke. Most suggestions were never acknowledged, they said, and those that were often were answered with form letters. Town hall meetings, on the other hand, frequently became major productions at which attendance was "expected" (which means required) and where executives sat on a stage and, after delivering speeches, took a handful of questions from employees.
Recognize at the outset that these programs take time, people, and money to operate. In the absence of a total commitment from top management, it is better not to start them--or, if they are limping along half-heartedly, to throw them out.
Instead, consider instituting drop-by meetings, where a top executive is simply available in a common room far removed from the executive suite and where the atmosphere is conducive to give-and-take. Little time is required, since the assignment rotates among top executives. Employees will know which executives are there out of obligation and which are enthusiastic about talking to employees.
Attendance will reflect the difference, and everyone in the organization will know it. (Ideally, top executives should eat in the same cafeterias as the workers, but I have made that suggestion at American-owned companies and never been invited back.
Instead, push for the best possible alternative.)
3. Communicate what employees want to hear in a way they want to hear it. Studies show that video and corporate TV, both labor-intensive media, are ineffective tools, especially when the message is about mission statements, long-term plans, complicated financial information, and the like. These are one-way communication tools and are useful only if trust and credibility already exist; if not, two-way methods are needed to establish them.
If you have to communicate using print and video tools, make it interesting. Years ago, one company produced a children's coloring book based on its annual report and business plan, then offered it to employ
John Guiniven is associate professor of corporate communication at Elon University and a consultant in employee communication. He formerly was on the faculties of the University of Nebraska and Syracuse University's Newhouse School. He spent 25 years as a public relations executive with International Paper and Chrysler before entering the field of teaching. He can be reached at email@example.com.…
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Publication information: Article title: Making Employee Communication Work: Recognizing Employees as a Core Constituency within Work Organizations Is Central to Creating and Maintaining Open Communication and Helping Regain the Trust and Credibility of Line Employees and Supervisors. Contributors: Guiniven, John E. - Author. Magazine title: The Journal of Employee Assistance. Volume: 35. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2005. Page number: 7+. © 2009 Employee Assistance Professionals. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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