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Employee Free Choice Act Changes the Game for Internal Communications

How to Move from Messages to Engagement

In today’s environment, the need to engage and activate employees is paramount.

In order to achieve the necessary and desired business outcomes, companies must move from the static, one-way message delivery that has traditionally driven the practice of Employee Communications to a more dynamic form of communication: Employee Engagement. Employee Engagement reflects more than a change in nomenclature. It reflects a fundamental change in thinking. It is a shift from providing employees with a lot of disconnected chatter, to creating a true conversation and voice that impacts what employees think, and more importantly, what they do in order to drive business outcomes.

The realities of today’s economy and today’s workplace have helped shatter the old dynamic between employers and employees. Healthcare costs continue to rise. Major corporations have made outsourcing and contingent labor central features of their staffing plans. Even in the current economy, the war for talent is intensifying. At the same time, the difficult economic environment has intensified employee fear – fear of change, fear for their jobs and fear for their very livelihood. This apprehension can breed mistrust, impact productivity and pit employees and management on opposite sides at the time when a shared interest in common goals is critical.

The companies that are and will be successful are those that recognize that employees are the universal touch-point for each of their constituencies. Employees influence purchasing, investing and employment decisions at every level. Businesses need to motivate their employees to do more with less, while operating in alignment with corporate priorities. This is a near-impossibility if the employees don’t feel invested in the enterprise. This is more than a battle for relevance; it may be a battle for corporate survival. That battle will be won by those who treat internal communication as a way to foster a meaningful dialogue with their employees, and lost by those who treat their workers like walking mail boxes, available to receive information, but not necessarily vested in acting upon it.

From Dual Relationship to Three – Way Street

The dynamic may grow trickier still, pending the outcome of the debate in Washington over the Employer Free Choice Act, which is legislation designed to amend the National Labor Relations Act to “establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.” Whatever your politics, this is a game-changer. Ultimately this signals a resurgence of organized labor after decades of declining influence. If it passes as originally outlined, the path to representation is quicker and easier than ever. And the timeline from organizing to contract is accelerated with the threat of binding arbitration in just a few months.

Whether the legislation ultimately passes or not, it is clear that organized labor intends to play a more active role in the relationship between employees and their employers. This can complicate the relationship, divide loyalties and lead to polarization, where collaboration and teamwork are required.

The key to smooth labor relations and a productive work environment – whether your workforce is represented or non-represented – is a two-way dialogue predicated on trust, transparency and a shared vision of success. This trust is established and maintained like any other relationship – over time, via consistency and a willingness to entrust your employees with substantive information and a clear call to action. In reality, if you begin employee communications in response to labor activity, it is a day late and a dollar short.

Whether you are seeking to attract and retain talent, generate support for a new business imperative, or to maintain friendly labor relations, an effective Employee Engagement program is one that is built on the five C’s: clarity, consistency, context, customization and conversation. In practice, that means you should:

  • Embrace clarity (quickly). For an employee, nothing weakens trust more quickly than when they receive inside news – good or bad – from an outside source. It creates an Us/Them dynamic. It prompts the employee to feel as though they work for the company, rather than feeling like they are the company. If you have bad news to share, share it internally before they can hear it elsewhere. If you are not telling the story, then someone will tell it on your behalf, out of context and missing critical details. Treat your employees like adults. Be up front and straightforward. And be quick – news travels fast, and modern employees have access to an unprecedented range of news sources, from traditional news outlets to chat rooms, social networking sites, blogs, you name it. The grapevine keeps growing, every hour of every day.
  • Be consistent. Employees trust communications that are regular, consistent and balanced. If your newsletter mysteriously skips an issue when business declines, or a dramatic policy change is announced the day after the CEO holds his annual Town Hall meeting and open Q&A, your employee engagement program will be viewed as little more than a propaganda machine. Stay the course, even when times are challenging.
  • Understand that context is king. Delivering information is relatively easy. Motivating employees to change their thinking or behavior based on that information is more complicated. The key to moving from information to action is context. When delivered out of context, news can be misinterpreted and misunderstood, or simply ignored because the relevance to the individual is not clear. Be straightforward and thorough. Explain why decisions were made and what forces were driving them. Remember that when you make changes – even positive ones – that impact customers, distributors, business partners or communities, your employees are often the messengers. They cannot represent the company well if they can’t have an informed conversation about the issue. Articulate your reasoning, and when applicable, the benefits and trust them to do the same.
  • Customize your message. Most employees see themselves as part of a smaller collective within the larger corporate whole. Understand the neighborhood mentality; your employees are part of discrete groups – work groups, shifts, departments – first and foremost. These smaller divisions are intrinsic to the modern workplace and should be respected. So while your overall message is the same to every audience, it is important to customize the content, approach or emphasis for each of the individuals within your comprehensive employee group. This concept of the individualized mass is similar to the approach gaining popularity among brand marketers for products and services. Let each employee, and each workgroup or department enjoy both their individuality, and their role as a part of the larger group that is your employees.
  • Start a conversation. Good conversations involve an exchange. An effective Employee Engagement program should seek to draw information from employees, rather than just delivering information to them. Establish a mechanism to listen to employees, and not only to the squeakiest among them. Whether you choose to blog and invite comments, hold employee town hall meetings or simply put up an employee comment box, understand that if one employee says it, ten think it. And when you open the dialogue, be open to the idea that inviting employee participation might mean there is more dialogue than usual. Be open to the idea of reviewing and revising the occasional policy or decision, where appropriate, in the interest of continuing the collaboration and discussion you’ve invited. You never know where the next big idea may come from!

Internal communications is a powerful and underutilized tool. When companies use a communications model based on engagement, it can motivate your employees to act or behave in a way that benefits them and your business. This will help you foster trust and loyalty at a time when both qualities will be at a premium. It will strengthen your company’s relationship with your most critical corporate asset. It will help you establish a beachhead in the upcoming battle for talent, and today’s battle for business success. This is a battle you can win.

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Carreen Winters is an Executive Vice President at MWW Group’s Corporate Practice.  She regularly counsels the agency’s largest corporate clients on a range of issues, including reputation management, crisis communications, employee communications and labor relations.

MWW Group is one of the nation’s top ten public relations agencies and is known for its results-driven approach to public relations and “Aim High… and Deliver” commitment to client service. For the past four years, MWW Group has been honored with the #1 ranking in the Holmes Report agency client satisfaction survey. MWW Group achieved top rankings in the categories of account leadership, strength of account team, creativity, strategy and planning, and program execution. In 2006, MWW Group was named PR Agency of the Year by The Holmes Report and Mid-size PR Firm of the Year by PR News, in recognition of the firm’s growth, strategic account leadership and industry-leading employee retention. MWW Group is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies (NYSE: IPG).

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