Early in my career, my boss called me into his office and told me I was being given responsibility for employee communication. “What did I do to deserve this punishment,” is what I thought at the time. While I have long since changed my mind about the value of employee communication, perceptions about the step-child of PR have changed slowly over the past 30 years.
Corporate leaders who understand how to properly use employee communication can achieve greater results, but too many others bow to economic pressures that direct their attention to what they think are more important business drivers. They are wrong. During my Sears days, we proved the value of effective employee communications that drove positive sales results and increased profits. Our efforts became one of the first Harvard Business Journal articles confirming the cause and effect relationship between happy employees and positive sales results.
During last week’s PRSA International Conference in Orlando, Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., Professor of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Alabama, made a strong case for the value of employee communication. Delivering the prestigious Gruning Lecture with the same title as this blog’s headline, Dr. Berger asserted: “Most leaders claim employees are their most important asset and extol the importance of employee communication. Such claims, however, have greater weight than the supporting evidence.”
Dr. Berger cited a number of studies revealing a disconnect between employees and management, including the fact 63% of employees believe managementlies, 56% of employees are not proud of their company leaders and 24% of employees would fire their boss if they could. With a quarter of employees having less trust in management in 2011 than just a year ago, we’re facing a serious credibility gap that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Berger points to research that internal communication is more likely to be successful when:
- Senior leaders are visible, they walk the talk, they listed and respond to employee issues they genuinely care about employee well being, and they deliver salient messages that explain what’s happening, what it’s happening, and what it means to employees.
- Front-line managers and supervisors provide regular performance feedback, recognize employee contributions, listen and respond to employees, create development opportunities, provide some work autonomy and enable employees to act in ways that contribute to organizational goals.
- The communication system provides timely information and 2-way communication channels; facilities learning and sharing of information and best practices through multiple communication channels; and enriches understanding of the marketplace and how jobs align with organizational goals.
It seems simple enough, but it’s not happening. Dr. Berger closes with advice for what we can do to make a difference. “We can be exemplary listeners, we can engage, we can inspire, we can be accessible and visible, and we can recognize and thank others for their contributions,” he urges. “Who knows, our own behaviors might just be the tipping point for breaking the employee communication paradox n our organizations.”
Strangely, I believe an improving economy will open more opportunities for employee communicators although it should be happening right now as a stimulus to improving productivity. Fortunately, in some businesses the “batten down the hatches” mentality is giving way to leaders who are beginning to realize the importance of effective employee communication. This will create more opportunities for internal communicators.