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Should Companies Offer Employees a Lifeline?

Sunday, July 6th, 2003

This article first appeared in USA Today, July 2003

By Peter W. Lilienthal

“…It ultimately is management’s responsibility to demonstrate its commitment to welcoming both good and bad news.”

Just like the uncertainty experienced by contestants on the TV game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” employees have uncertainties and insecurities about their jobs. These doubts can include questions about company policies and procedures, confusion over benefits, not knowing where to go to share ideas, or reluctance to raise concerns about organizational problems. However, in contrast to the three “lifeline” options available to the game show’s contestants, employees are typically provided with few, if any, good ways to receive guidance about their workplace-related questions and concerns. That is because most companies continue to rely on traditional and often inadequate and ineffective communication tools. Only in a few well-run organizations do “open door” policies, intranets, and internal hotlines provide trusted, reliable ways for employees to get real help with their ideas, questions, and concerns.

There is good reason why employees are reluctant to raise their hands. In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing workplace environment, there are significant risks in calling attention to oneself. All too often, individuals who ask questions end up getting yet more work heaped upon them, or they get labeled as disloyal and/or troublemakers. Some even end up losing their jobs. So, other than airing their opinions around the water cooler, employees tend to suffer in silence or, worse yet, leave the organization. With that challenge in mind, what can companies do to improve the likelihood that employees will come forward with their questions, concerns, and those golden nuggets of insight that can improve the firm’s bottom line? Similarly, what can boards of directors and accountable executives do to make certain that no one is cooking the books or hiding information that could embarrass them and perhaps even end in a jail sentence? The solution can be as simple as offering them the corporate equivalent of a “lifeline.”

As used in this article, the term “lifeline” refers to a new breed of outsourced systems designed to encourage employees to speak up about workplace concerns. These programs are different, albeit conceptually complementary, from what are known as employee assistance programs. That kind of widely utilized service is targeted toward individuals who need assistance with personal issues such as marital conflict, substance abuse, and financial woes. In contrast, an employee lifeline service is designed to help in obtaining guidance about frustrations, questions, and challenges related to the workplace. Providing outsourced employee lifelines is a business that is experiencing rapid growth, particularly in response to the push for greater corporate accountability. If boards and CEOs are going to vouch for a company’s conduct, they need to assure themselves that they
are doing everything possible to identify problems proactively, and an employee lifeline service could be the best way to do that.

For a variety of reasons, many companies fail to accept that their established communication channels aren’t functioning effectively. Nevertheless, the evidence is often right before management’s eyes in the findings of the periodic employee satisfaction surveys firms conduct. Quite often, the area that is cited most by workers as being in need of attention is communications. Management becomes so focused on the company’s mission, culture, and strategies for creating shareholder value that it tends to lose sight of what is most important to employees. The result is a “disconnect” between the organization’s leadership and its workforce. It is one issue to state that criticism and feedback are valued; it is another to embrace them unconditionally. Microsoft
chairman Bill Gates once described this conundrum by suggesting, “Sometimes I think my most important job as CEO is to listen for bad news. If you don’t act on it, your people will eventually stop bringing bad news to your attention. And that’s the beginning of the end.”

What do most companies counsel employees to do when they have workplace-related issues or concerns? They tell them to talk to their supervisors or pick up a phone that is connected to an attorney, internal auditor, or human resource professional. Even if these options are advertised as being “absolutely confidential,” it often is difficult to convince employees that there will be no breach of that commitment and that anything they say won’t come back to haunt them. By way of example, a survey of its workers conducted by Lockheed Martin revealed that more than half the respondents did not report misconduct they had observed because they feared retaliation. Then there is the issue of e-mail as a viable, trusted means of obtaining feedback. Another survey, this one sponsored by the American Management Association, indicated that 74% of the corporate respondents routinely record and review their employees’ phone calls, e-mail messages, Internet connections, and computer files. It is no wonder that workers are justifiably wary of embracing their computers or voicemail as liberating channels for the discussion or sharing of controversial opinions.

Those board members and executives who believe that employees are comfortable using the chain of command to “tell it like it really is” may well be deluding themselves and putting their organizations at risk. All it takes is one festering situation to erupt in the form of a lawsuit, regulatory action, or major systemic breakdown. Only then might they belatedly appreciate that their well-intentioned policies and procedures don’t hold much sway in either the courthouse or the court of public opinion. The Enron experience is a good case in point. The company reportedly had a 64-page code of ethics and an espoused belief system that stressed respect, integrity, and communication. Yet, despite the fact that many employees had concerns about the company’s accounting practices, just one had the confidence to come forward to share them with CEO Ken Lay.

How does a typical employee hotline system work? Most tend to be elegant in their simplicity. As is the case with most new workplace programs, the employees are provided with materials that introduce the concept and contain the instructions for using the system. The access mechanisms may include toll-free phone numbers, email, fax, and multilingual options. In the case of a phone system, employees simply dial it up and, once connected, they can be given the choice of recording their concern on an automated system or speaking about it with an individual who is trained to discuss workplace topics. In addition, they might be provided with a case number they can use to call back and check on the status of their report or that the company can use to request
additional information. What is critical in the design of these alternatives is that the user can choose to remain completely confidential and anonymous, and the sponsoring company agrees not to request identifying information from the lifeline provider. All of this ensures a level of security that is impossible to duplicate on any kind of internal company system. As a result, workers truly feel empowered to come forward with their insights for making the company better for its employees and customers.

Usually within hours of receipt, a written transcript or summary of the information provided by the concerned employee is transmitted to a coordinator at the firm. A determination is then made as to the urgency of the information and where it should be routed within the organization. Some companies even go to the point of having a copy of every message sent directly to the CEO. Indeed, the elevation of feedback to that level of the organization tends to send a strong message about the commitment of executives to know about what is going on in their companies.

Equally as vital as hearing about issues in the workplace is assuring employees that management is listening and responding to their concerns. That doesn’t mean that each and every item will receive attention, only that management demonstrates a commitment to acting on feedback. Even though the identity of most senders may not be known, there are multiple ways to complete the communication loop. These include articles in company publications, questions and answers on company intranets, comments at employee meetings, and postings on bulletin boards. In addition, in a typical organization, roughly one-third of the users tend to leave their names. In those cases, someone can contact them directly, and that helps spread the good word about company commitment and core values. Whatever the situation is, it is ultimately through this cycle of employee input and management action that trust increases and real problems get identified and resolved.

Third-party system benefits

There are numerous benefits to providing such a lifeline. First, most such third-party alternatives are designed to be easier than homegrown systems for employees to understand and use. In many organizations, the mechanisms for facilitating the flow of important information, both up and down the line, have
evolved haphazardly. Sometimes, they are compartmentalized, e.g., contact the human resources department about benefits; call the legal department about harassment; report unethical behavior to internal audit). Sometimes, there are so many alternatives that employees frequently can’t recall the instructions for using a specific reporting channel. In many large organizations, even the managers directly responsible for internal hotline and suggestion program oversight have no idea as to the total number of programs in place for such purposes. They are equally in the dark when it comes to such basics as times of operation, utilization, and access particulars. It is precisely because these “Towers of Babel” cause such confusion that outsourced service providers
will recommend that as many communication needs as possible be consolidated under a single, easy-to-remember toll-free number. That way, it is cleaner, simpler, and available to every single person around the clock.

Second, employees tend to feel much more confident and comfortable using an outsourced communication system, because the best ones are designed in such a way that workers can decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to take. By using an outside provider as a conduit, organizations greatly reduce employee fears that someone at the other end will be able to recognize their voice, trace a phone number or e-mail address, or confront them about an issue. Thus, outsourced communication systems function as a lifeline for employees, as well as for the companies that sponsor them, because potentially serious, albeit often uncomfortable, issues tend to get aired earlier when they are routed through an intermediary. In addition, the overall utilization by employees is most often significantly greater than that of internal systems. A well-run lifeline program should experience between 7 and 15% employee
utilization annually. It has been found that the content of just one important call generally covers the relatively modest cost of taking systems outside. Beyond that, management can expect to receive a steady stream of ideas and insights for improving overall organizational effectiveness. It is not at all unusual for employees to share scores of viable suggestions for new products, methods for streamlining policies and procedures, and alerts about everything from pro-union stirrings to potentially explosive personnel situations.

Another benefit of using a third-party system is that the vendor has a vested interest in the communication program being a success. If employees don’t use their service, it is likely it will be discontinued. As a result, vendors tend to take an active role in providing assistance with such key tasks as internal marketing, followup procedures, trend analysis, and the design of creative solutions to address specific communication challenges.

Last, but not least, an outsourced system provides a measure of protection against adverse legal and regulatory actions. For example, with a credible, trusted lifeline in place for the reporting of perceived improprieties, Federal whistle-blower statutes provide for reduced damages if a company is found guilty of wrongdoing. Similarly, a growing body of case law, stemming from such decisions as Faragher v. City of Boca Raton and Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, indicates that simply establishing internal focused policies and procedures for the reporting of personnel issues is not always defensible. Conversely, several  companies faced with harassment and discrimination-related lawsuits have prevailed in court because they have provided employees with access to convenient and safe lifelines that the plaintiffs and their attorneys weren’t able to denigrate effectively. Should a journalist ever come knocking on the trail of a hot story about possible wrongdoing, it is a lot better to claim that there is a lifeline connected directly to the top that is available 24/7 than it is to respond, as some executives have been doing in their Congressional testimony, “To be honest, I don’t know anything about that.”

There are some considerations to providing employees with a lifeline. Foremost among these is the obligation to treat seriously the information that is received. Companies need to investigate claims and allegations and attempt to respond effectively to questions, concerns, and ideas. If employees perceive that their input is simply falling on deaf ears, they won’t use even the best of these outsourced systems. Although a quality lifeline provider can assist with the challenge of listening, it ultimately is management’s responsibility to demonstrate its commitment to welcoming both good and bad news.

Second, an outsourced lifeline flies in the face of the hierarchical, command-and-control structure that is the norm in many organizations. A surprising number of senior executives tend to be struck with fear by the possibility that a frontline worker at some distant facility could share a concern directly with the organization’s CEO. They cloak their individual fears by criticizing the demoralizing effect that an “end-around” system might have on a frontline supervisor. In fact, the long-term effect tends to be just the opposite of what one might expect. That is because frontline managers quickly conclude
that the best way to stem the possible flow of negative news to the powers that be is to become more engaged with their direct reports. The result is much improved face-to-face communication. There are also critics who fear that disgruntled employees and possibly outside activists will abuse the system and that significant energy and resources will be diverted to tracking down spurious issues. Theoretically, that risk does exist, but it is extremely rare that employees choose to undermine a mechanism that is clearly provided for their benefit.

Few, if any, senior managers would deny that employees have valuable insights about how an organization can work more effectively for its stakeholders. Despite that belief, most companies are extremely cautious when it comes to considering the possibility of making it as easy and safe as possible for employees to share their thoughts with management. As with the questions asked of contestants on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” there are four answers to the question, “Do you think that your organization could benefit from having a corporate lifeline?”: A. Yes; B. No; C. Maybe; D. Unsure. Pick the wrong final answer and, just like the game show contestants, companies will miss the chance to win big.

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Peter W. Lilienthal is the founder and president of In Touch, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based firm that provides businesses with employee communication systems.

Employee Feedback and the Board

Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

This article first appeared in The Corporate Board, Jan/Feb 2003.

By Peter W. Lilienthal

The new corporate reforms mandate strong, effective reporting systems that allow employees to blow the whistle on audit and legal irregularities.  Yet many corporations still have internal feedback systems that fail to measure up.  Unless your employees feel free to report illegal or unethical behavior, easily and anonymously, top managers and directors may be kept in the dark.

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If You Give Your Employees a Voice, Do You Listen?

Sunday, September 1st, 2002

This article first appeared in The Journal for Quality and Participation, Fall 2002.

By Peter W. Lilienthal

Making it easy for employees to share their feedback is the first step. Being willing to respond quickly to their input builds commitment.

What do the majority of organizations do to demonstrate to their employees that they have a voice? Most organizations still cling to such traditional communication tools as intranets, telephone hotlines, open-door policies, and employee satisfaction surveys. Whether or not they use these often ineffective mechanisms, do they ever let their employees know management is listening? Do they provide positive feedback by making and publicizing changes in response to employee input?

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What If Your Water Cooler Could Talk?

Sunday, September 1st, 2002

This article first appeared in The Journal for Quality and Participation, Fall 2002.

By Peter W. Lilienthal

When management demonstrates that employee feedback is genuinely valued, both retention and productivity show marked increases.

It’s a fact. Employees congregate around water coolers. And when they do, they chat about what’s on their minds. Some conversations are about personal lives. But often, much of the discussion is about what’s going on in the workplace. If management could capture its company-related water cooler talk, what comments, suggestions and gripes might it hear?

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Corporate Compliance: If You Don’t Ask, They Might Not Tell You

Sunday, September 1st, 2002

This article first appeared in ACCA Docket, September, 2002.

By Arlene Finkelstein, Peter W. Lilienthal, Gerald L. Maatman Jr., Carole A. Spink

If your company is like most organizations, your existing workplace reporting policies and procedures are designed to address regulatory and human resource issues. Although those issues may well be your company’s priorities, they are not necessarily your employees’ priorities. If you were a mouse in the corner behind the corporate water cooler, would you expect to hear discussions about possible financial irregularities, harassment, discrimination, and unauthorized
use of corporate assets?

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That’s the sound of the boss workin’ on the chain, gang

Saturday, September 1st, 2001

This article first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, September 2001.

By Dave Murphy

It’s easy to describe what happened to two Bay Area summer counselors as bureaucracy run amok, but their troubles really illustrate what can happen when employees or companies don’t understand the chain of command.

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System Helps Keep Managers In Touch

Sunday, July 1st, 2001

This article first appeared in Law Enforcement Technology, July 2000.

When was the last time that improving employee communications was a priority in your organization? In contrast to the business world, most law enforcement agencies do little to encourage communications between employees and management.

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Screen and Glean

Sunday, October 1st, 2000

This article first appeared in Workforce, October 2000

By Sallie Moniot Lilienthal

What do workers really think of your company? And if  they leave, what can your firm learn from their departure?

If hiring the right people is costly, time-consuming and difficult, then keeping them is critical, and probably one of the most important issues facing organizations today. It is no wonder that, from the boardroom to the first-line supervisor, companies are wrestling with what they can do to retain talent.

What is the answer? Nothing less than a complete system of employee communication tools can serve to enhance an organization’s ability to retain its top talent.  Without such a system, an organization will wallow in the mediocre, competing with, and frequently losing to, other organizations in the ongoing war for talent.

Current research confirms that it is generally not pay, benefits, or dissatisfaction with the job that prompts good employees to leave. In fact, according to the Corporate Leadership Council, the vast majority (67 percent) of employees who intend to leave their organizations are satisfied with their jobs. Rather, employees most often leave because they feel they are not valued. And, the majority of employees who feel this way say it is demonstrated by the fact that management fails to either solicit or listen to their opinions.

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman make this point in their book, First Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999), when they suggest that people don’t leave organizations, they leave managers. Jack Martin, vice president, human resources, for Land O’ Lakes, Inc., agrees. “In my experience, the single most important attribute to the retention of high-potential employees is the quality of the manager,” says Martin.

What can an organization with an existing management team in place do to increase the probability that it will retain its talent? Martin, who has been in the human resources field for over 20 years, says that the best employers always use a number of employee feedback systems to keep a handle on the pulse of the organization.

Employee Feedback Systems

What are the best practices and how can they assist managers in retaining talent? Betsy Buckley, a noted speaker on effective communication and president of What-Matters, says, “The fundamental principle of communication is that it be two-way; unfortunately, most employee communication programs are one-way and are, therefore, more likely to fail. Any system must incorporate two-way communication.” In addition to an effective system being two way, Buckley says, “the ‘system’ itself must be a series of internal communication initiatives that, together, are integrated into the fabric of the organization.”

Such systems typically involve a variety of integrated components, such as periodic, structured employee surveys, ongoing employee feedback that includes such things as management broadcasts, pulse surveys, exit interviews, and post termination surveys. The reality is that any single system used independently will not produce positive results.

However, taken together, they not only send a strong message that employee feedback is desired and encouraged, but they also generate incredibly valuable information with which to more effectively run the company. The critical factor is that management must actually use this information.  A brief overview of each of the component tools can help to pinpoint how they can be coordinated for maximum benefit.

Employee Surveys

For decades, organizations have collected employee feedback through periodic surveys. Many employees are cynical about these efforts, because for the most part, little if anything is ever done with the information.  In fact, employees are so distrustful that they often think that the questionnaires have been coded so that their responses can be traced.

Typically, the results also are not available for months, so that when the results are published, there is often little or no connection between the findings and management’s subsequent actions. At the extreme, so much time elapses between the data collection and the analysis that the results are no longer reliable.

Nonetheless, structured surveys of employees’ opinions can give management an important, big-picture idea of what the main issues are, and the results can set the framework for ongoing feedback efforts.

What’s important is how the information gleaned from an employee survey is used as part of an overall outreach effort. An experience at American Express Financial Advisors is a good case in point. Not long ago, the company’s management was taken by surprise by the low scores received on an annual employee survey about the company’s career management initiatives. Employees felt not enough attention was being paid to this much-needed activity, especially at a time when the company was going through significant change.

Consequently, from the top of the organization on down, management made a very strong and visible effort to strengthen the support available to employees in the area of career management. Not surprisingly, the scores on subsequent surveys improved dramatically.

Ongoing Feedback

Probably the most neglected component of an effective employee communication system is one that provides ongoing feedback from the front lines. Karen Gustafson, former director of employee communications for The Pillsbury Company, whose employee-feedback system won an Optimas Award in 1998 from Workforce, describes the benefits of such a system.

“Obtaining ongoing feedback from employees ensures that there are no misunderstandings between what is in the hearts and minds of employees and what management believes is in the hearts and minds of employees,” says Gustafson. “Senior management is somewhat isolated because they analyze and plan organizational changes long before the changes are    presented to the troops. A system that provides real-time feedback to management provides a reality check,” continues Gustafson.

In designing such a system, it is important that it be easy and safe for employees to use. Not doing so is a mistake that many organizations make. One example of an easy and safe feedback system consists of providing employees with an easy-to-remember, toll-free number they can dial up at any time. Once connected to the system, they are instructed to record a message for their organization’s management. Within one business day, a verbatim copy of their message is on management’s desk. Employees also have the option of leaving their names and requesting a response, an option that about one-third of callers use.

This system can be paired with management broadcasts, in which senior management records a message on the toll-free number that employees can listen and respond to, and pulse surveys, where questions are recorded for employees to answer.    Organizations can receive a written monthly report highlighting the trends in this feedback and comments on the content and tone of the calls, as well as recommendations about how management can respond to the feedback. Without management’s response, this easy and safe tool loses its effectiveness.

Exit Interviews

A third important component of an effective employee communication system is a consistently monitored exit interview process and post-termination survey. The objective of the exit interview and survey process is not only to identify feedback from departing employees that can be used to make the organization more effective, but also to demonstrate that employees’ opinions are valued. At most organizations, the exit interview and survey are administered through a formal, written survey that is simply handed or sent to departing employees.

Alternatively, an open-ended, face-to-face discussion between the departing employee and his/her manager or a human resource person, or a combination of both formats takes place. Unfortunately, the response rates of traditional exit interviews are exceptionally low, particularly with the mailed format, and yield sanitized, or nearly useless information.

There are many examples of the valuable information an organization can acquire as a result of conducting these interviews, information that can help in the retention of talented employees. For example, a neutral third-party specialist recently conducted a series of exit interviews for a large employer that wanted to know why so many IT employees were leaving. The results of   more than 400 telephone interviews showed that people were leaving because they did not believe their work was valued. They were doing more with less, and management did not seem to care.

It wasn’t the money, benefits, working conditions, or the work itself; it was the fact that management seemed unmoved by their hard work, increased productivity, and technological talent. Yet they acknowledged that the organization purported to value those things. The interview itself would not have retained those individuals, but knowing what they believed helped management take steps to value the efforts of the remaining staff.

Unfortunately, exit interviews and post termination surveys are generally an afterthought on the part of many organizations. The task of conducting them is usually given to someone who already has a full-time job; as a result, the data are collected inconsistently.

More frequently, the back end of the process is not in place, so there is no automatic way to process the information or use it effectively. The reality is that, in many cases, employees who are leaving do not want to burn bridges, so they are unlikely to provide candid feedback because their responses might be attributed to them. Instead, they either won’t respond or choose not to be honest.

However, when exit interviews are done consistently and allow for anonymity, and when the organization actually uses the information it receives, another link in the employee feedback loop is provided. Employees begin to feel that management values their opinions.

Making It Work

How can an organization ensure that it receives open, honest feedback from employees, both while they are working and when they leave?  A simple, yet effective method has probably already been used for other human resource tasks: outsource it. The work can be completed consistently, in a timely manner, and less expensively to the organization.

The bottom line? An integrated employee communication program will serve both recruiting and retention. First, the program makes a powerful statement about an organization’s commitment to its employees. This allows potential employees to know    right away, even during initial interviews, that the company has in place a series of initiatives  place that encourages every employee to provide feedback to management, including sending a message directly to the CEO.

Second, an integrated system offers great versatility when it comes to demonstrating to employees that their concerns, opinions, and ideas are being reviewed and acted upon. Management can choose from a variety of ways to convince employees that they genuinely are listening, and most important, are responding.

Third, experience suggests that approximately 70 percent of the information received from such feedback identifies improvements that can benefit an organization. These include streamlined processes, new product ideas, suggestions for improved productivity, and ways to enhance management effectiveness.

Engaged talent is a company’s prime source for creating and maintaining a competitive advantage. Any company seeking to exploit this competitive advantage must instill in its management a mind-set that they not only value employees, but also encourage them to share their opinions. As Buckingham and Coffman conclude, it is only with engaged employees that an organization can have loyal customers, sustainable growth, increased profitability, and enhanced shareholder value.

Sallie Moniot Lilienthal holds a doctorate in organizational behavior from the University of North Carolina. She is a board member of the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Management Communications Systems, the creators of InTouch, an award-winning internal communication tool that facilitates dialogue between management and employees to improve retention, identify liability issues and increase an organization’s productivity and profitability.

Internal Communications are Key to M&A Success

Saturday, January 1st, 2000

This article first appeared in Bank Director Magazine, 2000.

In the flurry of activity among banks to consolidate, improve profitability, and expand services, one board member responsibility is too often ignored, according to executive consultant Peter Lilienthal.  That obligation, he says, is assuring that there is an effective, credible employee internal communications system in place — a fail-safe mechanism that will provide an early warning from the front lines when change initiatives go awry.

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Benchmarking File

Monday, March 1st, 1999

This article first appeared in The Ragan Report, March 1999

Communicator turns a Ragan Report story about another company into a successful solution for her firm.

Sometime last January, April Jaconski scanned through a copy of The Ragan Report until she came to this section. Within moments, the problem that had plagued her mind for months vanished.

She finally had the solution to how she should communicate to Trigon Blue Cross Blue Shield coworkers during the organization’s disruptive transition from a one-state, nonprofit healthcare organization to a regional, for-profit company.

‘We were researching possibilities of two-way communication programs, and I read a story in The Ragan Report about American Airlines’ president recording weekly voice mail messages,’ the communications consultant recalls.

Inspired, Jaconski immediately began her search for a vendor that could set up a similar hotline at the Richmond, Va.-based Blue Cross Blue Shield. Unfortunately, the idea of the CEO/employee hotline was foreign to every communications firm she called. But Jaconski soon realized the company didn’t need the help of an outside vendor–Trigon was already halfway there.

The company already had a successful corporate compliance hotline in place, which she felt could easily be expanded into serving two purposes: an outlet for employees to call and anonymously leave suggestions and complaints, and a monthly means of communicating the CEO’s agenda and concerns.

Jaconski called upon Management Communications Systems, which was responsible for the compliance hotline Trigon established. Even though the vendor had never formed a CEO commentary line, it was willing to take on Trigon as a guinea pig and give it a shot.

By the summer of ’98, the new InTouch hotline was up and running. To ease employees into using the new line–and avoid any anxieties they might have about it being just another demanding form of technology–Jaconski simply introduced it as a new feature of Trigon’s employee compliance hotline.

‘The great thing about both programs is employees call one phone number, enter one company code, and then a prerecorded message will ask them if they want to press one for the InTouch employee line, or press two for the compliance hotline,’ she says.

It wasn’t long before Trigon’s 3,800 employees were relying on the hotline to learn details of the company’s conversion directly from the mouth of CEO Tom Snead.

‘We were asking them to look at every-thing in a totally different light,’ Jaconski says. ‘The conversion to a public company left employees with a lot of questions.’

She contends that through the InTouch line’s monthly, three-to-five-minute messages, callers learned about everything that was going on first-hand, boosted their industry knowledge, and gained a better understanding of the roles they played in the company’s objectives.

But employees, who have left more than 300 messages in less than a year, aren’t the only ones ecstatic over the hotline. Jaconski also emphasizes Snead’s enthusiasm in continually getting his vision out to employees via the hotline. In fact, it was his desire to do so that got the ball rolling on the project.

Jaconski says that Snead often wrestled with his conscience about not being able to frequently communicate with every employee in person. Thankfully, the hotline provided him with a substitute for doing so.

Jaconski’s voice resonates in sheer delight as she adds, ‘This is something I think is pretty incredible–he reads every single message that comes through on this line!’

The communicator receives transcripts of the calls via e-mail daily from Management Communications, and converts them into her weekly report for the CEO.

‘He reviews the weekly report, gives me back his comments, and then I pass things that need to be reviewed and suggestions onto the appropriate management that can handle the issue,’ she explains.

Furthermore, Jaconski says that before any answers are published in Dateline, Trigon’s employee publication, Snead reviews the various responses managers have prepared to ensure they’re in-line with his thinking. ‘Nothing is printed without his touch in it,’ she says.

Jaconski believes the InTouch line has truly helped increase trust in the company–and in Tom Snead, who as of next month will become Trigon’s president, COO, and CEO.

She says Snead’s interest in employees’ concerns was illustrated recently when an ongoing exercise class at the main facility was to be canceled due to lack of space. ‘Now that’s not something the president would normally know about,’ Jaconski says. ‘But employees were upset about it, it was a good program, and they wanted to keep it. They called into the line and [Snead] left a message that said, ‘Absolutely–It’s great, we’re going to find a way to make it work, and we’re keeping the program.”

Though Trigon’s InTouch line has gone a long way toward killing the rumor mill, Jaconski admits there’s still a lot of work to be done.

I’ll think it’s completely successful when we don’t need the hotline anymore because everyone’s talking face to face,’ she says. (Jaconski: 804-354-3601)

Is your organization undertaking a strategic communication program? We’d like to tell the story.

Contact associate editor Heather O’Donnell by phone (312-960-4403) or e-mail:

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

Monday, August 10th, 1998

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.


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 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)

Today’s Suggestion Boxes

Wednesday, July 1st, 1998

This article first appeared in City Business, July 1998.

By Frank Jossi

Minnesota firms are giving their employees 800 numbers to call in their best ideas and greatest grievances

In an office with a broad expanse of windows overlooking Lake Calhoun, Peter Lilienthal allows a visitor to listen in on employees who have called an 800 number with comments, suggestions and complaints about their workplaces.

One man enumerates an innovative idea for incorporating coupons into a marketing initiative launched by his employer, a food company. Another caller wonders why it takes three weeks to be reimbursed for dependent care costs covered in her benefit package. A hospital employee reports the security guard near the entrance where she works is rude. A woman calls to ask if the line really offers absolute anonymity.

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Help Management Really Communicate

Sunday, February 1st, 1998

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.

Pillsbury’s Recipe is Candid Talk

Sunday, February 1st, 1998

This article first appeared in Workforce, February 1998.

By Gillian Flynn

Company execs know exactly whats on their employees’ minds.

The most important information a company can have is the kind it rarely gets: frank, unreserved, this-is-how-it-is feedback from employees. No matter how many rallying speeches managers give about how their doors are always open, about how they want employees to challenge them, that sliver of fear remains.  Where’s the line between offering constructive criticism and giving offense? How can anyone be sure today’s pointed conversation won’t influences tomorrow’s performance review?

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