Employees Make the Call On Company Issues, Policies, Business Moves

This article first appeared in Phillips PR NEWS, August 1998.

24-Hour Hotline Allows Businesses to Track Issues, Concerns

August 10, 1998
Vol.54, No.31

Imagine allotting $15,000 of your carefully honed communications or HR budget to give employees a chance to vent. Vent anonymously. Vent any time of the day. Vent about anything.

Say hello to the new-and-improved suggestion box of the 1990s: the 24-hour voice mail system that records employee complaints, thanks, questions, suggestions —even alleged instances of discrimination or harassment. Employees can call from home or work, even while on vacation.

Management Communications Systems, Inc., a Minneapolis based company, is gaining recognition for an innovative service, In Touch, being used by companies like the Rite Aid Corp., Harrisburg, Pa., and media company Katz Media, New York, to give employees a sounding board, albeit a gripe line in some cases.

But what makes the In Touch system unique (we couldn’t find any other like it) is that the infrastructure is supported by In Touch, not the contracting company, and messages are transcribed daily, typed and then forwarded to corporate point people. Having a third-party handle the phone line adds a layer of credibility as well as a buffer if employees fear retaliation.

Who knows: Would the Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America lawsuit levied by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission have made it to the EEOC stage if the company’s internal tools for measuring corporation reputation have included a system that allowed for this kind of expression?

Today, MMMA has a hotline (which it oversees). For the past 14 months, it has had an anonymous hotline in place to create a "best practices" workplace, according to Gael O’Brien , director of corporate and community relations. The hotline is an offshoot of a 34-point plan which evolved after MMMA hired a consultant to analyze its work culture after the lawsuit was filed.

In the business world, this kind of do-good effort might seem like wasted time, but companies are finding that these kinds of systems can augment other employee communication vehicles, such as newsletters, intranets and quarterly meetings. When Katz Media was acquired by Chancellor in October 1997, the company used In Touch to get a pulse on what acquisition jitters existed and to address concerns.

It discovered that employees were concerned about how their benefits would change, says Richard Vendig, senior VP, chief financial and administrative officer and treasurer of Katz Media.

Getting In Line with In-Touch

A word of caution, however: Since permanent vendor-managed hot lines are a new wave, there isn’t an abundance of evidence to support whether venting employees mean better revenue. But there isn’t any question that successful companies are employing systems like this to track employee morale and as part of wholistic reputation management plans.

Cendant Mortgage, a subsidiary of Cendant, has used In Touch for about 10 months and is averaging several calls a week, according to Coleman J. Walsh Jr., director of employee relations. The system is helping position the company — which has 2,900 employees based in Mt. Laurel, N.J., and is hiring at a clip of about 200 people a month — as an "Employer of Choice."

Ironically, its parent company, Cendant, which has been in the news because of accounting irregularities, says it doesn’t use the In Touch system. And executives wouldn’t divulge if it has plans to do so in the future.

But the system isn’t as one-way as you might imagine: companies using it are posting answers on intranets or publishing internal newsletters that address messages. Case in point is another In Touch client, the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia, which began using the system when it was re-engineering its Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and consultant

Deloitte & Touche recommended the organization look into In Touch.

And it’s still using the system, even publishing questions and answers in Update news alerts.

"Within 24 hours, I get an e-mail, a transcript of the messages that were left verbatim," says Jacquelin Sufak, director of internal communications for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. "I route the messages to the managers who can handle the response and we also send lists to our chief administrators at our various hospitals."

On The Other End

Employees can dial up a toll-free line, enter an access code, and share their complaints, tips or industry concerns. Those who want a direct response may leave their names and numbers. When costs are prorated, In Touch runs about $3 per employee each year, with a minimum price of $4,500. Clients with more than 5,000 employees pay a minimum annual fee of $15,000 and also receive monthly management summaries. In Touch has 45 clients and projects 1998 sale around $650,000 to $700,000, according to Peter Lilienthal, founder and sole shareholder.

Even though companies that are using this kind of system say that only a slim margin, several calls out of hundreds, result in investigations or are considered serious, having such a system can be considered a kind of safety net, a means of triaging corporate reputation.

"Companies are finding out that how employees view companies, whether they’re seen as ethical, is important," says Kim Saxton, VP of reputation measurement for Walker Information, Indianapolis. The firm helps companies measure and manage stakeholder relationships.

Employees, during the decade of downsizing, were the often-neglected public. But companies today are realizing how crucial it is to improve employee communication for business, as well as morale, reasons.

REACH OUT – AND TOUCH AN ISSUE

When the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania first began using In Touch, employees jumped on the bandwagon quick enough.  Here are some of the messages recorded when the service was introduced:

Tuesday, Oct. 8. 1996: Thanks for this opportunity to give my opinion confidentially.  I’m…I love HUP. But I think our signage, our directions or sign situation is pitiful.  People cannot find their way.  There’s no map outside the cafeteria lobby..how to get where you are..or where you want to go.  The house..what are they called…the people who offer directions and that kind of things and security-there’re quite good, but still people need signs.

Friday, Oct. 11. 1996: Hi. I just wanted to say that I like the idea of this line. And I really believe that it’s very important for organization to help it step up its parity, benefits and salary between the two organizations (HUP and Presbyterian Hospital) so that we can employ the appropriate people to meet the appropriate need within the system.  Right now, there is not parity.

Friday, Nov. 15. 1996: I’d like to thank you for having this service.  It really helps me get some of this anger and frustration off of my mind.   I have a suggestion or a concern.  I wanted to know why it is tolerated in a re-engineering situation to have the in-patient team working in a vacuum.   Re0engineering is supposed to break down silence…change the way we communicate in the institution.

(In Touch, 612/926-7988; Cendant Mortgage, 609/439-6976; Cendant, Ted Deutsch, 973/496-7865; Katz Media Group, 212/424-6483; University of Penn. Health System, 215/349-5654; Walker Information, 800/231-4904; Mitsubishi, 309/888-8203)

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