No time for silence: Breaking news to employees

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7th May 2009
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No news is good news - but sometimes breaking bad news to employees is unavoidable. Rob Ashton explains how to do it and provides five steps to effective employee communication.

It’s bonus time. And your employees are waiting for their yearly salaries to be topped up with performance-related pay. The trouble is that sales have been in freefall for a while and there’s simply not enough money in the pot to go round. What’s more, it looks like you’ll have to lay off employees from several divisions. It’s clear that now is no time for silence. But how do you break the news? As the custodian of the employee lifestyle from recruitment to retirement, HR professionals have an increasingly important role in these credit-crunched times. And breaking news is a task that needs to be carefully and skilfully managed. Whether the news is good, bad or indifferent, employees need to know what’s going on. In the current climate, many employees are worried and uncertain about their jobs and are looking to their managers for leadership. Fear of corporate reorganisation or job cuts can seriously demotivate them - even if the cuts never happen. If employees sense a lack of direction or company strategy, then they can quickly become dissatisfied. This can lead to a drop in productivity at a time when companies are already struggling.  The Association of Communicators in Business agrees with this sentiment. It has warned organisations to double their internal communications efforts during uncertain economic times. Remember that your company doesn’t just stop just because of the global recession. If sales are down, then focus on different elements of your business, such as service and internal processes. With improved communication between you and your employees, you’re more likely to retain the people that matter most to the organisation. Creating an internal communications plan to navigate the choppy waters means you’re more likely to emerge from the recession without a nasty case of corporate seasickness. Five steps to effective employee communication The first thing to remember is that employees always take their cues from the top. In a recession, leadership is what drives success. Make sure you recognise the true value of your leaders through rewarding those who consistently deliver results. Sending out a message that you value your employees sets the stage for open, honest communication.  1)     Tell the truth Explain the direct impact of the recession on your industry and organisation and say what the firm will need to do to weather the storm. Involve and trust your staff by making sure that they are told news first before anyone externally finds out. Tell people about job or budget cuts as soon as possible, along with reasons and timescales. Educate those at the helm by making sure the senior management team know the ins and outs of internal company processes. This will help them to successfully communicate with employees. 2)     Use two-way communication Once staff have been told about a new strategy or organisational change, ask them what it means for their job and how they envisage their future work. No-one knows the work processes better than the employees. They can give advance warning about changes that they don’t think will work. Give them a forum to communicate their thoughts and ideas. And keep up the information flow, as silence breeds rumours. 3)     Keep meetings to a minimumGo to staff meetings and find out which ones add real value to the organisation and which don’t. Decide how you can best communicate news that would have been talked about in a meeting. For instance, instead of inviting 20 managers to a meeting, invite five and delegate communication of the key issues via a staff intranet, blog or newsletter. 4)     Vary your communication methodsCommunication isn’t a one-size-fits-all discipline. Find out how your employees like to receive information and then tailor your communications to suit. The BBC, for instance, uses Wikis. These are two-way websites where staff can upload responses and their own files. Alternatively, try writing in the style of your employees’ favourite publications. If the staff prefer to read The Sun rather than The Telegraph, for example, then make sure that your internal newsletter is witty and chatty, and that it presents the information in small chunks. Get to know your employees and make sure that you communicate plainly and simply. But be careful about overusing email. The rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t write it on a postcard, don’t send it in an email. 5)     Create a news hierarchy Many internal newsletters focus on the lives and times of employees, celebrating births, marriages and quirky out-of-work achievements. But it’s important to decide what is most important to share and focus on that. Don’t spend too much time crafting the chief executive’s ‘happy summer’ message, when staff would be better off being informed of the corporate strategy for the coming quarter. Remember, staff may initially be resistant to corporate change. But seek to alter their mental maps of change, rather than your business objectives. With open, honest and respectful communication, you can break through resistance and gain influence. The 'write' way to communicate news    If the news is life-changing or shocking, tell employees face-to-face. But if you’re updating employees about existing news or smaller changes, then a carefully-crafted report or article can say it best. Keep it simpleCement employee relations by writing clearly. This means avoiding long, flowery phrases and keeping your sentences short and snappy. Aim for no more that 15-20 words in a sentence. Get activeUse the active voice. So, write ‘We anticipate an upturn in next quarter’s profits’ rather than ‘an upturn in next quarter’s profits is anticipated.’ Choose verbs over nounsVerbs give writing movement. For instance, ‘We will consider CVs submitted by July 15’ is more dynamic than ‘consideration will be given to CVs submitted by July 15’.  Emphasis has agreed to send a free copy of 'The Write Stuff' - a 60-page guide to help you with the writing process - to the first 100 HRzone readers to contact it. Visit www.writing-skills.com/contact-us/ to get your copy.  Robert Ashton is chief executive of Emphasis, the specialist business-writing trainers. For free online writing help, go to www.writing-skills.com/forum

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