If our labour unrest demonstrates one thing, it is the appalling lack of understanding and knowledge among a large group of South African employees about the companies they work for – let alone the disturbing lack of shared goals between business and labour both at a national and company level.
Employee awareness is another subject in organisational theory that accounts for great bodies of literature and discussion. It is recognised as the bedrock of sound relations in any collective. Yet in many companies it’s something of a Cinderella compared with the attention paid to shareholder or external communications. Despite new transparency rules, employees certainly are not protected in law as much as shareholders are in terms of information requirements.
Communication in any collective is a multi-disciplined activity, but often the important central and strategic information is left to a public relations (PR) department, or to the mercies of an inexperienced communications practitioner.
Internal or employee communication can be subjected to the same three-pillar scrutiny that all activities should undergo: what, how and why.
The “what” or content of employee reporting should be the easiest to determine. All it really needs is a quick survey among staff about what they would like to know about the company and merge this with both the company’s strategic needs and the development needs of staff. The greater these coincide the more mature the communications system. Despite the simplicity of the concept, it is rife with pitfalls. Research in my previous consultancy showed that most staff both wanted and needed more strategic and important information, such as company performance. Yet leadership often baulked at sharing this – not out of bloody mindedness but simply out of an inability to put the information in a context that could be readily understood by staff. They could not relate as easily to an employee paradigm as they could to a shareholder view. This kind of information is also less “media” friendly to glossy magazines and electronic wizardry.
Content of communications falls into three categories: strategic, ad hoc, routine.
A developmental strategy opens up many areas of opportunity. For example, come personal-tax submission day, a company can open its finance department’s doors for personal-tax queries. Or it can use the occasion to inform staff about how the national budget works.
Strategic communication is not haphazard. It can be designed like an educational curriculum and be informed by the three circles of employee and employer needs and wants. The real departure from employee reporting norms is in its broader view of content and the use of collective resources for sharing this knowledge.
Ad hoc content is literally guided by events both within and outside the company. But the net can be spread more widely. For example, newspaper headlines about one or other corporate fraud are an opportunity for highlighting the company’s own ethics, whistle-blowing policies and views on corruption.
Routine information is self-explanatory and should be scheduled and diarised to ensure appropriate treatment; “routine” doesn't mean “less important”. For example, the publication of annual figures is routine but highly significant for employees. Amazingly, however, I’ve noticed that many communication functionaries are caught off guard by these events. All their energies go into producing information for shareholders and internal communication gets neglected.
Probably the most important element of content is the financial results. The income statement has very limited value in enhancing employee awareness and here I strongly advocate use of the Contribution Account which I will explain in future.
The “how” or techniques used is important but often too predominant. A friend of mine has a PR consultancy that has as its slogan: “It's not what you say but how you say it!” The belief in technique as the most important element of communication has become more widespread with the development of new media and information technology. Here is where the most money is spent and expertise applied. Because of this, it tends to dictate content: from the “happy snaps” in staff magazines to elaborate video productions. We are all familiar with them.
A key problem with all impersonal techniques is their inability to engender trust. Indeed they can become counter-productive in an environment of distrust and their lack of personal interactivity invariably creates a sense of manipulation – which it often is. If one examines the effectiveness of organised labour’s communication with their members, compared with company employee communications, then the answer becomes clear. Shop stewards engage members personally on all matters affecting the company. Companies, on the other hand, rely mostly on impersonal techniques. The only counter is to delegate the task to first line supervisors and hold them accountable. All other media, whether in print or electronic form must be viewed and designed purely as a means to enable that interaction.
The most valid and effective way of transferring information is on a one-to-one basis, from one person to another. All other forms are surrogates and poor substitutes and should be there for the convenience of the communicator, not the recipient of the message; the coach, not the player; the teacher, not the student; the leader, not the subordinate. Where the front-line leader or the first-line supervisor is not trusted, this distrust will generally undermine all efforts at communication, including the CEO’s open forum or walkabout.
Communication is one discipline where one all too often allows “why” to be superseded by “what” and “how”. “Why” is in fact the most important of the three elements. It’s the meaning. The others are form. It’s the substance. The others are consequential – they follow on “why”.
Most internal communication processes fail because they are conducted almost exclusively in the interest of the collective. Seldom is it seen to be in the interest of the one communicated with, unless this interest is wrongly assumed as always being the same as that of the collective.
The Machiavellian stance on internal communication is often not taken at a conscious level or even fully appreciated. Clearly trust and internal communication are mutually supportive but the one does not guarantee the other. I have observed clear suspicion of internal communications during periods of company uncertainty such as wage negotiations, even though the company generally had a good employee trust track record.
The expedient approach to employee communication has been widely practised over decades. The examples of content I have given are not intended to dictate a norm, but rather to advocate a style that has endless possibilities for enhancing knowledge and awareness.
The style is crucial to creating employee empathy with the developmental purpose, which in turn is a critical element of credibility and trust.