Corporate antics raise workers’ suspicions

Bad times are good times to open communication channels

A number of unprecedented events have eroded public and employee confidence in corporate management and integrity. Take your pick: the dotcom meltdown, fraud charges at Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and other corporate heavyweights, the ongoing decline of the stock market. The shine has come off many corporate stars.

Employers need to ask themselves how these events are impacting the morale of their own staff. It’s not a stretch to realize that people at all levels are looking inward at the company they’re working for. Employees are wondering:

•How secure is my job?

•Am I being told all facts about our company?

•Would they tell us if they knew something?

•How safe is my pension plan?

•Do you think the CEO will stay?

Some employers believe this is nothing new; employees are always asking these questions, so it’s no big deal. But for a business, these distractions have a negative impact on operations.

For a forward-thinking organization, this environment provides an opportunity for HR and the senior team to demonstrate leadership by addressing employee concerns. Here are some practical steps to get you started. Immediately

Be visible. One of the most important things a company can do is have the CEO be visible to employees both in person and through sharing information on issues that matter — company direction, job growth or losses, competition, challenges faced. This can be achieved through site visits, town halls, breakfast meetings and electronic or print messages from the president.

Gaining trust and loyalty requires creating a connection with employees. And this need for visibility extends to the entire leadership team. They too should be making every effort to make their presence known. This is an indispensable component of leadership, and critical to creating an open and honest corporate culture. HR practitioners can play a role by tabling this plan of action to senior management, and also by doing their part to proactively communicate on HR issues concerning employees.

Discuss the hot topics. Look at the current hot issues and consider doing some proactive communication. Expect employees to have concerns about some of the following:

Pensions — With the number of high-profile bankruptcies being reported, employees are concerned about their own pension plans. Any information or recommendations on where they can learn more would be welcome news.

Stock options — Similar to pensions, many employees may have a stake in their company. They want to know and understand what’s happening with the share price, what direction it will be heading and why.

Benefits — Always a big expense to companies, employees often see changes or reductions in benefit plans as a signal of how the company is doing. Be clear on the financial reasons for changes.

Job security — While there is always sensitive information to consider before communicating on this subject, you need to deliver a clear and consistent message. If job losses are projected, it’s better to say so than to ignore the issue and make a sudden announcement later.

Values — Many firms have corporate values that are obsolete. These values have been replaced by leadership imperatives — formal and informal guidelines to what are really important to the company. Now is a good opportunity for the CEO to communicate these essentials to ensure all employees understand what direction the leadership team is going and why.

Longer term

Survey. Most HR practitioners roll their eyes when they hear the suggestion “let’s do another survey.” Yes, most surveys are too long, too frequent and it’s sometimes ages before employees see the results (if at all). But it doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. To take the right action, you need the data. Any company wishing to address employee anxieties must ensure it has information on employee satisfaction levels.

In a survey, include a communication section to learn what employees want to know more, or less about, and determine which communication vehicles work best.

Communication standards. While many businesses do a good job of rolling out new initiatives, they’re frequently poorly packaged and employees ignore the messages. Benefit plans, newsletters, pension booklets and training guides have different themes, styles and are packed with information that’s hard to get through. An internal brand — a common look, tag line, icon and format — can help break through the clutter and clearly package information targetted at employees.

We are living in interesting times, and for many employees that means more uncertainty and disruption. While no company can control outside events, one thing they can manage is how they communicate with employees. A corporate culture that encourages open and regular communication with employees contributes to stronger commitment and greater loyalty.

Sandy French is president of Northern Lights a marketing and communication company. He can be reached at (416) 593-6104, ext. 222 or [email protected]

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