Excerpt: Successful Employee Communications

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AN excerpt from chapter 1 ‘Making the case for employee communication’ of the second edition of Successful Employee Communications by Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick.

What exactly is employee communication?

Let’s try to get something straight at the start. We’re interested in how organizations communicate. This book is about the conversation that takes place between a group of colleagues who are joined together by a common goal or set of goals. That might be to make profits in a company, to help a charity’s beneficiaries or to provide government services. And when we say ‘conversation’, we mean things like messages to staff, listening to employees or how a leader directs and focuses their team.

This book is not about how to improve one-to-one communication or fixing broken individual interpersonal relationships in the workplace. When a pair of colleagues fall out or just can’t work together, it is often described as a failure to communicate. And while interpersonal communication has similar components to group communication, they are not the same thing and not the main focus of this book.

People use a range of skills to communicate with each other. As well as our verbal skills, we rely on non-verbal cues (like people leaving the room when someone enters, or fidgeting in a stressful meeting) or on our ability to listen to what is actually being said in a conversation. These skills might be used to share information, indicate respect, negotiate, solve problems and collaborate or influence other people. 

It is sometimes useful to pretend that an organization is the same as an individual when it comes to communication. When you need to explain the problems of an organization getting its message over or understanding its people, it can be helpful to use the language of the individual. Perhaps we might say, ‘The organization needs to listen more carefully’, or complain that ‘mixed messages are being sent’ when what the boss does is in conflict with what she says. But we should always keep in mind that, although organizations are made up of people, they are not people. 

An employee or internal communicator is concerned with the conversation within the organization and not automatically the interpersonal skills of regular colleagues in the office or factory. The day-to-day ebb and flow of relationships between co-workers are mostly the realm of organizational communication and not what we’re looking at in this book.

Having this clear saves a degree of confusion. From an academic standpoint, it is interesting to connect line management communication, peer-to-peer communication, project communication and internal corporate communication (Welch and Jackson, 2007). When you think about it, they clearly are connected but, for practical reasons, we have to draw some lines around what a communication manager can be expected to achieve in the workplace.

Context matters for employee communication

However, life is rarely simple when it comes to matters of communication. Although we are concentrating on the conversation between staff and the organization, there is naturally some overlap between the individual and the collective. Without a basic understanding of human psychology, it is probably difficult to manage corporate communication or advise on messaging.

In particular, as communicators, we have an important role in creating a sense of shared context in an organization. When colleagues are agreed on their objectives or the challenges facing them, the scope for misunderstanding decreases. In fact, collaboration becomes far easier when people have a shared view of what they are trying to achieve or a common purpose and can anticipate correctly the needs and intentions of their colleagues. We’ll return again and again to this theme in this book, especially when we talk about change and handling bad news.

So, at the most basic level, the value that we add is in fostering shared understanding within a workplace. If we do nothing else well, getting everyone on the same page immediately makes organizations work better and be more effective.

Defining employee communication

People who work in employee communication can find themselves being pulled in several directions. We can be reporters, coaches, change agents, consultants and even organizational strategists (Likely, 2008). Although it is tempting to define internal or employee communication, the range of work that gets done by practitioners can be incredibly broad and subject to some debate (Verčič et al, 2012).

There isn’t a clearly agreed definition that tells us what employee communication is, apart from in general terms such as ‘the planned use of communication actions to systematically influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of current employees’ (Strauss and Hoffman, 2000: 143).

So, in the rest of this book, we’ll explore what internal or employee communication is through the lens of what practitioners do and the impact they have. However, although we’re not proposing a new definition, we do need to highlight a couple of elements.

The Strauss and Hoffman definition mentions planning and being systematic; these are surely essential components of a strategically minded management process. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic there wasn’t a lot of planning going on in communications departments. Most of us were hoping to get through the day with just one announcement to make as rules and management responses seemed to change hour by hour.

But, among strategically minded communicators, elements of the core plan kicked in eventually. Communicators began to focus attention on helping colleagues stay connected to their workmates, showing care and compassion for colleagues who were struggling whilst working remotely and helping people work safely in supermarkets, hospitals and factories, because there were still customers to serve and stakeholders to support.

As people who have worked with, and trained, professional communicators over many years, we have long observed that real professionals have a sense of the results they want to achieve, think ahead, listen and focus on resources.

Current employees are also mentioned in the Strauss and Hoffman definition. In this book we do not assume that employees are paid or necessarily current. We have seen people around the world giving freely of their time to staff vaccination centres and support health services but they are no less an internal audience than their colleagues receiving a pay cheque (FitzPatrick,2018).

Furthermore, ex-employees are important stakeholders for many organizations. They might be important sources of future sales (many consultancies, for example, routinely manage a large alumni network and benefit from the goodwill of ex-staffers) or may return again as workers, bringing valuable experience of how customers use products. A company’s pensioners can be a powerful reminder to serving workers of the benefits of loyalty. While we are not planning on looking at alumni communication in this book, we mention it here to illustrate how varied the concerns of an employee communicator can be.

Finally, recent years have highlighted that that employee communication is definitely not a one-way street. Managers have been looking for ways to connect with their teams as never before and, in our case study from Shell, you’ll hear about the interest senior leaders have in hearing views from the organization. We’re in the ‘listening’ and ‘conversations’ business more than the ‘telling’ game.

This extract from Successful Employee Communications by Sue Dewhurst and Liam Fitzpatrick ©2022 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.