Communicating with your employees: priority number one

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BY TOM MARTIN

When we’re discussing various stakeholder groups, my students often ask, “Which stakeholder group is most important?” While all stakeholders—employees, customers, investors, regulators, communities—are important to an organization, when pressed for a single most important group I have to choose employees. While it is true that without customers a business can’t exist, it is the employees who attract and retain customers, deliver for investors, satisfy regulators, and build trust in the community. The positive actions of employees as a group are essential to a healthy business, and the negative actions of just one employee can destroy trust and bring a business to its knees.

So how, then, do we build employee loyalty, meet employee expectations, and generate employee engagement?

A few years ago I worked with one of the most respected researchers in the field of employee communications, Roger D’Aprix, who has consulted extensively with major global organizations. When I was leading the employee communications effort at FedEx, he helped us enhance our employee engagement efforts.

D’Aprix studied employee behavior for years and he realized that employees in organizations large and small share very similar expectations of their managers. If these shared expectations were successfully met, employees were far more likely to offer suggestions on ways to make the business better.

It starts with job expectations. All employees want to understand the responsibilities of the job they have so that they can meet and exceed these expectations. That sounds obvious, but when I speak with colleagues, students and those new to the workforce, it is amazing how poorly these expectations are often explained to them. It goes beyond rudimentary orientation efforts; companies need to devote significant time and resources to ensuring that newly hired workers truly understand the job and exactly what management expects them to do.

Once on the job, employees want to know how they’re doing. This is where many employers fall short. Employees who are doing well in their jobs often fail to receive the praise and recognition they have earned through hard work and steady mastery of the task. But many supervisors commit the more egregious error of failing to provide constructive feedback to the worker who is falling short in his or her performance. Months can go by when the struggling employee hears nothing, followed by the surprise announcement that they are being let go because things just aren’t “working out.” Such a surprise from a supervisor is unfair and unforgivable. Employees deserve timely feedback and a reasonable chance to improve.

D’Aprix observed that employees also need real demonstrations that their supervisors care about their genuine needs. Is work being scheduled fairly? Do they have the resources to get the job done? When life throws them a curve ball, do they feel their company truly cares about them as a person, not just as a box on the org chart?

If these basic individual expectations are met, employees also share a common need to know how their work unit is progressing. This can be a restaurant, a branch office, or a manufacturing plant. How does their unit’s performance compare with other parts of the company, or with comparable facilities in other companies?

Organizations are often eager to share the broad vision of the future with employees, yet the truth is employees won’t show much interest in long-term vision statements if their individual communication needs are not being satisfied. If someone is starving for information today, they aren’t very curious about what’s on the menu for next year.

There is a huge payoff for meeting these essential employee communication needs and expectations. If organizations can successfully communicate job expectations, provide timely performance feedback, show genuine empathy for the individual, share work unit milestones and provide employees with a sense of future direction, something magical happens. Employees begin to raise their hands to offer suggestions on how to make things better. They are more willing to provide discretionary effort—the difference between what they have to do to keep their jobs and what they are fully capable of contributing when they choose to.

By capturing this extra effort, companies are far more likely to achieve competitive preference in the marketplace. More importantly, they will retain the talented people who deliver goods and services to the customer, come up with new ideas, and make coming to work every day a satisfying experience. It’s there for the taking, if employers are simply willing to hold up their end of the bargain.

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