By Brian Kreissl
One HR discipline that doesn’t get a whole lot of press is employee communications. But communicating effectively with employees is one of the most important things an organization can do to foster a positive and collaborative employee relations climate, position the organization as an employer of choice, set expectations and minimize exposure to liability.
When people think of employee communications, they often think of more formal communications like organizational announcements, e-mail messages from senior management, policy manuals, HR intranets and even job descriptions, employment contracts and HR forms. Many of these communications have a strong compliance element, and they’re therefore likely to be handled by someone in HR, either independently or in collaboration with corporate communications or the legal department.
This is important because HR is often seen as something of a “compliance watchdog,” meaning the function is almost viewed as an extension of the “long arm of government” into the workplace. This is resented by employees and employers alike. Employers see HR as too compliance focused and employees feel it can’t be trusted, since HR represents the establishment and the status quo.
There’s no arguing the compliance side of what HR does is very important. But if HR sticks to that side only, it’s losing out on an important opportunity to help improve organizational communications. HR professionals already have many of the tools needed to help foster more effective, collaborative and transparent communications.
Remember that organizational behaviour (OB) course you took back in college or university? Many HR practitioners probably think of OB as an interesting but not all that practical discipline. However, there were some important lessons there on communicating within organizations.
One lesson from OB is informal communications can be even more important than formal organizational communications. Employees often obtain more information from their direct managers — and even from their co-workers informally through the grapevine — than they do from formal organizational announcements.
The grapevine can be surprisingly accurate. HR professionals need to carefully monitor what’s being said in the way of gossip, innuendo and rumours. HR also needs to train managers on how to deal with the scuttlebutt that inevitably exists within their teams. It’s better to acknowledge rumours and deal with them head-on, whether there’s actually any truth to them or not.
More importantly, HR should be training and coaching line managers how to communicate effectively with their direct reports, not only through e-mail and in team meetings, but also in one-on-one situations such as performance appraisals, compensation reviews, career planning, training, mentoring, and when providing context setting, continuous coaching and feedback.
Managers need to understand the basics of communicating as a leader. This is particularly important when cascading organizational information, discussing controversial or unpopular topics and delivering bad news. While line managers should show empathy, have good listening skills and be willing to consider differing opinions, they also need to be confident, assertive and willing to show solidarity with other members of the management team.
Another lesson from OB relates to the relative richness and effectiveness of various communications channels. A large percentage of communicating is done through verbal and even non-verbal means. This means people usually get much more out of a telephone conversation than an e-mail message. Better yet, a face-to-face meeting allows parties to hear words, tones of voice and interpret both verbal and non-verbal cues. This is an important lesson in workplaces where many people seem to hide behind their e-mails and text messages.
Some other important things organizational behaviour teaches us about communications include:
•Communicating in organizations is a two-way process. There’s both upward and downward communications.
•Effective listening skills are just as important as strong writing or verbal communications skills
•Groupthink (the tendency not to question or critically examine decisions made by highly cohesive teams) can be avoided at least partially through effective communications.
•In order to communicate, organizations need to understand and deal with some of the barriers to effective communication such as “noise,” distractions, poor choice of words, cultural differences, linguistic background, status and power differentials and lack of time.
While there are many principles of effective communications that aren’t taught in organizational behaviour courses, if you want to improve organizational communications in your company, a good place to start might be dusting off that old OB textbook from college.
Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.