Help Management Really Communicate

This article first appeared in Communication World, Feb/March 1998.

By Peter Lilienthal

It’s like watching people go hungry at a huge buffet.

Largely as the result of rapid advances in information technology, never have there been so many forms and types of communications directed at the workforce. Yet, in this era where corporations are increasingly demanding adaptation to change and new levels of management-employee cooperation, mutually satisfying communication and employee buy-in seem to have become casualties.

Ample evidence of this disconnect can be found in the joint IABC – William Mercer survey on relationships within organizations which was highlighted in the August-September 1997 issue of Communication World. In that summary, Mercer employee communication consultant Roger D’Aprix explained, "A whopping 70 percent of them (the employees surveyed in 38 participating companies) believe that change is being imposed on them from on high with little opportunity for them to contribute their ideas before changes are made…"

Yet ask almost any contemporary chief executive officer or senior manager if he or she is committed to concepts such as employee empowerment and workgroup-team building and you’ll get a resounding, "Absolutely!" In fact, a recent survey of 259 chief communications officers by the international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and Yankelovich Partners rated employee communications as the top priority in their organizations, even ahead of investor relations.

Why is there such a disconnect between what today’s corporations desperately need, what their top management espouses and what their employees want? The answer can be found in Mercer consultant Karen Greenbaum’s definition of contemporary organizational communications which is contained in the same Communications World survey report. She defines contemporary organizational communications as consisting of at least four key activities: "Leading, Informing, Listening and Involving."

Too often, it’s the last two elements – listening and involving – where so many well-intentioned and even well-constructed employee communications efforts fall short. What too many companies seem to lack is an effective and credible employee feedback program. If such a program is lacking in your organization, the following paragraphs will help you design one. Similarly, if you’re unsure whether feedback programs you have in place or generating the kinds of results they should be, that concern will also be addressed.

A good place to begin is by describing some of the key benefits that a well-designed employee feedback program can provide. First and foremost is the link (access) that such a program can provide to what in most organizations is a major untapped resource – the knowledge, ideas and creativity of its employees. In a U.S. survey of workers that was recently sponsored by our firm, more than 90 percent of the respondents indicated that they had good ideas to offer on how their firms could be run more successfully. It is a belief that has been bolstered by many other studies. Inside PR editor Paul Holmes made a powerful statement about this theme in his October 11 newsletter. Commenting on the findings of the Hill & Knowlton survey, he wrote, "The body of management literature showing that a well-motivated, fully-contributing workforce is key to competitive success has been growing rapidly in recent years. At the same time, many major corporations have been downsizing and restructuring…and leaving employee morale in tatters."

A feedback program also makes a strong and meaningful statement to employees that they – as well as their opinions and ideas – are genuinely valued. This can and does build loyalty to organizations. And as I have seen time and time again in my work, such loyalty can result in employee contributions that encompass everything from wonderful new product ideas to creative ways to making themselves more productive. It can also help to reduce turnover, which, in today’s tight job market, can be a major consideration. A good example occurred at one of our clients in the financial services industry. Through the feedback program we had helped establish, management was alerted to the fact that entry-level employees were being brought in at hourly rates equal to or surpassing those being earned by the same long-term employees training them. This was not only creating a serious morale problem, but those affected were indicating that if things didn’t change, they would leave to go to competing organizations – and there were several good local competitors. The company responded quickly and the problem was resolved. What’s informative about this example is that because management was reaching out to its employees, they felt a loyalty to the company. And rather than simply picking up and leaving, they gave management a chance to do something first.

An employee feedback program can also serve as an early warning system about legal and ethical issues. This benefit is particularly important in regulated and monitored industries such as healthcare and government contracting. Organizations that provide a means for employees to communicate their concerns are in a much stronger position for reduced penalties under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. Additionally, a CEO or other senior executive, when questioned by an investigator or reporter about alleged workplace wrongdoing, can respond, "The issue you raise has not surfaced through our employee feedback program which we actively and enthusiastically encourage all employees to use." Programs which we have helped clients establish have provided timely and valuable feedback about everything from guns in the workplace to sexual harassment and drug abuse. In one noteworthy case, an organization was able to avert a potentially significant and embarrassing class action lawsuit – as well as a possible public relations debacle – by receiving information about perceived racial bias that was occurring in a particular department. Once again, given the opportunity, employees went to management before they pursued other redresses such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or plaintiff’s attorneys.

Considering the benefits that can be gained from soliciting employee input through an organized feedback program, why don’t more companies adopt and promote them? Interestingly, one of the major roadblocks is sometimes a company’s senior management team. When a CEO asks me to work with senior staff to develop an employee communications outreach, I often encounter senior management resistance. Many executives fear that to launch such a program will open a Pandora’s box of gripes, accusations and unrealistic expectations. In my experience with dozens of such programs in every type of organization imaginable, if you treat employees responsibly, they will act responsibly. Nonetheless, this is a real concern that always should be seriously evaluated.

There also is a skepticism among some in management, that employees have anything important to say. In the survey our firm conducted last fall, 27 percent of the employee respondents said that a reason they didn’t offer their ideas is because they believe that "management doesn’t care."

Finally, there are the challenges relating to employee fears and insecurities about "opening up." Mistrust is rampant in today’s world of restructurings and downsizings. Similarly, people are wary of being labeled as "malcontents" or even worse, "whistleblowers." Akin to this is the inherent discomfort in dealing with superiors. Our firm has worked with many organizations where senior management passionately proclaims an "open door" policy, but where employees are fearful of expressing anything even close to criticism or controversy – especially if it concerns their managers.

Is there a way to overcome these roadblocks, yet create an effective and lasting employee feedback program – one that legitimizes and strengthens a corporate communications program? Our experience in working with organizations across the U.S. in many types of industries gives us confidence that there is. We have found that there are two important factors. One is where responsibility for managing a feedback program is assigned. The other is the design ingredients of the actual program.

Our experiences have clearly demonstrated to us that to maximize effectiveness and credibility, any program for facilitating an internal dialogue should be assigned to an organization’s communication department. It’s really quite simple. That’s where the expertise for communicating resides. Communications is the group charged with being the information manager within the organization. It’s also where the motivation to drive the process exists. And it also has a high level of organizational integrity – both with peer staff functions and with employees. It has been an interesting finding of ours that the communications staff is most often perceived as having the fewest "hidden agendas." of any staff function. And there is generally less opposition to assigning a feedback program there than any other place. Stimulating communications is your job – and that’s why you are the natural choice for making it happen – with, of course, strong support from the top.

The other key to developing a relevant, powerful and measurably effective program is a design that includes three essential ingredients: convenience, comfort and completion of the feedback loop.

Here are some considerations about each of these:

Convenience – The easier and more spontaneous a communication system is to use, the more people will likely use it. For example, one of the often overlooked drawbacks to written employee suggestion or feedback programs is than an employee typically needs to first retrieve a special submission form and then write or type what they have to say. This is time consuming and definitely not spontaneous. By way of contrast, convenience is the name of the game in a program we helped create for American Freightways, a large over-the-road trucking company. The company provides its drivers, who travel all over the country at all hours of the day or night, with a toll-free number they are encouraged to call from anywhere at anytime. This result has been a torrent of ideas and suggestions that has helped the company’s management connect with its highly mobile and geographically dispersed employees. Because it’s so convenient to use, employees actively use it.

Comfort – The critical test here is the confidence employees have that there won’t be any negative repercussions if they express themselves and try to "tell it like it is.". As mentioned earlier, there is frequently a wide gap between a company’s official policy towards openness and employee perceptions of how that policy is actually practiced. Unfortunately, there are articles just about everyday describing corporate whistleblowers who lose their jobs for reporting perceived wrongdoing.

One way around this is to permit employees to submit their ideas and concerns on an anonymous or confidential basis. This approach often makes corporate attorneys particularly nervous, since they worry that they will be put on "constructive notice" and won’t have the means to investigate serious allegations. While this can be a complex subject, what’s critical is that if a program is presented to be confidential and anonymous, that commitment must have integrity. For example, for employees to feel comfortable with written or phone-in programs, there needs to be a step in the process where comments are converted to hard copy before they are passed up the ranks. Otherwise, employees may fear that their handwriting or voices may be recognized. Similarly, employees using telephone or email systems need to feel a comfort that their submissions can’t be traced. We have found employees are concerned about being discovered through caller ID systems. And many companies publicize the fact that their email systems are backed up and that messages can be retrieved for litigation purposes.

A solution to this dilemma, at the risk of sounding self-serving, is to have the employees send their messages to a message handling service operated by an independent, third-party. Such an approach provides the comfort employees are seeking that their opinions will be truly confidential and anonymous – if that’s their choice. Experience clearly shows that this enhanced comfort can result in significantly improved utilization and useful information as compared with an internally managed mechanism.

Completing the feedback loop. If employees are going to take the time and risk to share their thoughts and ideas, it’s critical that the company let them know they are being heard and that their ideas and opinions are valued. Employees who do identify themselves should be acknowledged and, in some cases, receive appropriate recognition. In addition, there are a number of effective ways to demonstrate to the entire organization that management is not just paying lip service to its feedback program, but is listening, and, in some cases, taking action. Chances are, in most organizations, the communications vehicles for getting this job done are already in place. They typically only need to be modified slightly to reinforce the program and its contributions. Feedback ideas that we have helped develop include question and answer columns in employee publications, distinctive postings on bulletin boards or email systems, discussions at employee meetings and even special newsletters. Once again, this is the logical role for the communications professional and a major opportunity to help keep information flowing both down and up the organization.

If you propose that your company create or reshape an employee feedback program, it’s almost certain that senior management will want to know how performance can be measured. In our experience, an annual utilization rate of between 10 and 20 percent of a company’s employee base is not an unrealistic target. A representative breakdown of the topics that management might expect to hear about is shown in the accompanying graph. Finally, even if a program provides a confidential and anonymous option, roughly one-third of the users can be expected to identify themselves. There are, of course, variations in these levels, depending on the industry or type of business. We have found, for example, that employees in the healthcare industry have a very high level of service orientation and the percentage of service-related feedback in hospitals and medical centers is likely to be twice that of the norm.

In its second annual supplement on the "Information Age" published in November 1997. Forbes magazine editorialized that, "The defining event of our age is the collapse of ‘command and control’ as an organizing principle." To succeed or even survive today, companies and organizations must give form and substance to concepts like "teamwork" and "empowerment". Employees do have some extremely important things to say and share with management. And the great majority of companies, CEO’s and their management teams are interested in receiving these ideas and opinions. The challenge is in finding a convenient, comfortable and cost-effective way to maintain a feedback system that truly feeds the needs of both management and employees. By being successful at it, you can address the issues of listening and involvement that the IABC Mercer study showed are so necessary.

In the process, you can also greatly increase the visibility and value of the communications professional.

Peter W. Lilienthal is the president of IN TOUCH®, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that specializes in the design and implementation of employee feedback programs.