Communications: how to be open and honest, even in times of growth

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Honesty is the best policy when it comes to managing internal communication during a period of change. Keeping your workforce updated and addressing their concerns will alleviate stress and keep your team together. 

One of the biggest challenges HR directors face when their business is going through significant growth is deciding how best to communicate the changes to employees in a way that ensures they feel involved and valued, without causing panic and unease.

Business growth can put HR directors in a difficult position. We’ve all been there - there is a big change that will most definitely impact the company and its employees, maybe a management restructure or a change in leadership, or even a restructure which means that employees will have to be made redundant.

The instinct is to keep the news on a ‘need to know’ basis until everything is absolutely, 100% confirmed. But people talk, and rumours spread, and even when the changes are positive you are left with employees feeling at best uneasy, and at worst mistrusting.

Either way, employee engagement is sure to take a hit with every leak that ensues - and leaks are inevitable.

The importance of transparency

I think the answer to this is simple - ignore the instinct to keep schtum and be honest right from the beginning.

Being completely transparent with employees during periods of change, even if it is bad or uncertain news, helps build trust. Keeping staff informed about the process is crucial in them feeling involved.

Once they’re in the know, they can get comfortable with the change, and ask any questions that they have.

How can you expect employees to care about the business if they don’t feel a part of it? And if they don’t care about the business, why should they want to help it succeed?

Similarly, if they don’t understand where the business is heading, how can they make the best decisions for the business?

Business growth can put HR directors in a difficult position.

How we approached a huge period of internal change

With that in our minds, in 2015, when Reward Gateway’s leadership team made the decision to sell a 55% stake of the business to private equity investors, we decided to be completely open and honest throughout the whole process - and I mean completely.

It’s something we try to do in every area of the business, and we didn’t see why this should be different.

Our goal was for employees to feel more connected, not only to Reward Gateway, but also the new investors - we didn’t want to lose any employees as a result of the process.

So, employees knew the plan from the beginning, were updated on the progress of the sale, and when we expected it to be completed, with as much information as we were allowed to give (confidentiality agreements notwithstanding).

It was a bold strategy, but it was a success - not a single employee left because of the sale, with 95% of employees saying they felt more connected to and understood the business better at the end of the process.

In fact, 92.7% said they understood the decisions the leadership team made throughout the process and 92.7% said they felt informed about what was happening overall.

Employee engagement is sure to take a hit with every leak that ensues - and leaks are inevitable.

Here are my top tips on how to recreate this...

Be clear about your objectives

  • Set out what it is you want to achieve through your communications. Being open and honest about what’s happening is a start, but you also need to think about how you position the news, and what you want employees to take away from it - is it reassurance? Is it excitement? Is it trust?
  • Whatever it is, knowing your objectives from the start will mean that at every difficult stage in the process, you’ll be able to question yourself on the objectives, and use the answers to frame your communications throughout the process.

Think about your channels

An update doesn’t have to be delivered by an email! Think about how you can make it as engaging and immediate for your staff.

Communicating through a number of different channels will mean that as many of your employees as possible will hear the news as early as possible, directly from you the business; much better than hearing it third-hand from a colleague because they haven’t had time to check their inbox yet.

Assessing the best channels to use will depend on your company’s culture, and the nature of the update you want to give. One thing we found worked well was a regular blog post from Glenn, our CEO, on our intranet.

Employees knew when to expect it, and we also brought every new update to their attention through our social media channels, meaning that they could choose to hear from in a way that worked for them.

If it is a really exciting piece of news, which will have a positive impact on your employees, why not do something different to really mark the occasion?

When we knew how much our employee share scheme would pay out after the sale of the business, we organised a celebration party in each of our offices across the globe. It was such a fun day for everyone, and really showed our staff just how great an opportunity the sale was for the business.

Be realistic

It’s inevitable that some news will be more sensitive than others. There is no point in painting a fun and exciting picture if the news is actually unlikely to be either of those things.

If it is a really exciting piece of news, which will have a positive impact on your employees, why not do something different to really mark the occasion?

Consider how employees are likely to be impacted - i.e. will there be redundancies, or changes to roles? - and adjust your tone accordingly. Even if you’re not sure what the impact will be, make that clear. Being open about uncertainty helps take away the fear and nervousness that it creates, and reinforces mutual trust.

Miscommunication, or being left in the dark, leaves employees feeling unloved. Being open and honest - even if the honest truth is that you don’t know - reduces uncertainty and helps employees to understand what is going on.

They feel better-connected to the business, and as a result, care more about its success. 

About Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis is Internal Communications Manager at Reward Gateway, the leading provider of HR technology powering employee benefits, recognition, communications and engagement. Reward Gateway has helped more than 1,100 enterprise companies including IBM, McDonald’s, Groupon and Unilever to better connect with their employees through one simple platform.

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