Don’t Hold Back on Employee Communications

As I work with different organizations I’m struck by the variation in their approaches to communicating with employees. Having worked in director of corporate communications roles for several years in some very large companies, my bias is toward communicating more not less. And, I’ve been fortunate that the companies I’ve worked for have been very open, transparent and honest with their employees.

Not all employers take that approach, however, and it’s not a place they can get to quickly — it’s a process that can take some time. But establishing a culture of trust generates great benefits for employers.

Three recent studies covered in an HREOnline article suggest that corporate secrecy — particularly with regard to such issues as succession planning and development of future leaders — is a common practice at many organizations these days, even though it may damage their long-term success.

Succession planning and leadership development aren’t the only areas where open communication matters, of course. I often see a lack of open communication in companies’ strategic planning processes. It’s troublesome, because obviously plans can’t be implemented at a tactical level if employees haven’t been actively engaged in the process. And failure to execute is one of the most common issues that companies face in their planning efforts.

Towers Watson has been conducting research on the value of effective employee communication for years and their results have consistently shown a direct correlation between companies that communicate broadly and effectively with employees and the financial success of these companies. Communicating with employees is not simply something that is nice to do –– it’s a business imperative.

I fall very far along the “keep it quiet” – “tell them everything” scale. I believe that in most cases sharing more is better. Company leaders I work with fall at various ranges along this continuum, with smaller companies tending to be more open, which I find interesting. With the larger companies I work with, their concerns tend to fall along these lines:

  • We can’t tell them anything until we know everything. Many companies are hesitant to start a discussion if they don’t have all of the answers.  (My response: Yes you can – and should; in the absence of information employees will fill in the blanks with their own speculation. It’s okay to say: “We don’t have all the answers now, but here’s what we do know; we’ll provide you with updates as we know more.”)
  • We don’t want employees to know about our weaknesses. (Guess what? They already do. What they need to know from you is how you are going to address those weaknesses.)
  • Employees aren’t concerned with these management issues and they don’t really “get it.” (They may not “get it” when you use your language and “business speak,” but they are always interested in how what you’re doing may impact them.)
  • We may change our mind/change direction and employees will view us as being indecisive. (They already view you as indecisive if you’re not sharing information with them and if they’re receiving mixed messages from different sources. Changing direction is not a bad thing if it’s in response to changing environmental impacts; educating employees about your decision-making process and your focus on continuous improvement can help here.)
  • We don’t have time. (You’ll save more time in the long run if you take steps to communicate with employees up front.)
  • We don’t want them to hear mixed messages. (No, you don’t; this can be addressed through a well-defined communication process that starts at the top and trickles down through the organization based on consistent key messages.)

The bottom line is that establishing strong, two-way, communication channels can save you time and money — and increase the effectiveness of all of your planning and operational activities whether that means succession planning, marketing planning or business planning.

Don’t hold back on employee communications. Engage your employees through involvement and the opportunity to provide input in a non-threatening environment. Your bottom line will benefit from it.

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