Communicating with employees

By Sara McAuley, CCP, WLCP. Member, WorldatWork 2014 Board of Directors

Once again, employee communications have made global headlines.  This time, US-based AOL announced a change in benefits strategy.  According to most accounts, the message was initially delivered via an investor meeting rather than to employees.  Coincidentally, AOL’s stock took a brief hit the same day—and the headlines were punctuated with reports of bad judgment by management.  There is more to this story, details of which make an interesting case study.

This is a quandary that we have all faced, particularly in companies with large shareholder populations.  The time span between what must be released to the public and how soon we can talk to employees is often down to seconds. As well-intentioned as we may be, employees are often the last to know about events or changes that will have significant impact on their work and lives.  I will admit to having great success with communicating new programs or policies, and just as many miserable failures!

What advice would you give to HR professionals as they are faced with major communication challenges?  Hire a good consultant?  Partner with their company’s marketing and communications team? Plan the communication strategy long before the event itself?  All of the above?

In the fourth quarter WorldatWork Journal, research by Dow Scott and Tom McMullen points out that only 30% of respondents agreed that their employees understood and appreciated their total rewards programs; only 21% said that leaders regularly sustained rewards and performance communications.  With regard to manager involvement in employee communications, only 11% of respondents thought that managers effectively implemented and communicated total rewards to employees.  In spite of these disappointing statistics, improvement of communications practices continues to be at the top of the list for rewards and HR professionals.

Are there some new approaches to getting communications right?  Can social media help?  How many HR teams have a robust social media/communications strategy?  Food for thought, and comments or new practices welcome!


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  • Interesting points, Sara.

    The general question of communications with employees is massively important - I say "with" (and not "to") because ideally it should be a two way process and not just top down.

    Many companies rely on announcements (internal or external, web or noticeboards) to deliver information - they rarely succeed in satisying staff who are left with little or no opportunity to ask questions and perhaps seek reassurance. Those companies that are more successful are those that understand the key role that "the boss" has to play. For many people the immediate supervisor (whether it's a lead technician or a senior director) incarnates "the company". It is therefore critical that they are appropriately equipped to handle company communication with staff and to flesh it out with local context and explanations.Some years ago the company I worked for was close to bankrupcy - we ensured that whenever key press anouncements were made, all front line managers/supervisors received a brefing immediately prior to shif handovers, so that they in turn could carry the message to front line operatives - this generated strong trust and a sense of shared identity and purpose.

    Placing all this in the Reward area, the same lessons can be learned. If your managers are not equipped to understand your employment package then "the company" becomes a more distant entity with whom the supervisor is not identified, potentially becoming the nebulous and invidious "them!".

    For this to work this means that your managers must fully accept the role of communicator, and more importantly, it requires that "the company" wants them to play this role as part of their day to day responsiblity (HR and Comp & Ben then take on a greater facilitating role). Also, your Total Reward Package must makes sense in the context of your company. If these conditions are met, then management are well equiped to understand not just "what" the package is, but also "why" it is the way it is.

    What do others think?

  • Interesting great blog and comments. The CIPD pay attitudes survey finds a link between satisfaction with an employer pay decision and whether that employer communicated that decision to the employee. Here’s the link

    However, just 57% of employees questioned reported that their employer had explained to them the rationale behind the decision to increase their pay. Of course, it’s easier to say that employers should communicate about reward, the challenge is how they should do it, especially if line managers don’t have the skills or the inclination. Not surprising, workers who thought that their employer did a good job of communicating to its employees are in the minority.