Employee messaging is a minefield of politics, legal and social issues. But you must not let this hinder effective communication.
In my previous post on the subject of HR Communication, we looked at some of the problems inherent in taking responsibility, presenting a unified front and not making your departmental issues a problem for your customers as well.
Another way of substantially improving the way your HR department communicates with employees is by improving consistency, tone and visibility. This is strongly connected to implementation projects and changes, but can be a benefit to general communication strategies as well.
People are social creatures, and well in tune with how the message you are sending relates to previous messages as well as the underlying pattern and purpose. What we dislike above all is messaging that is inconsistent.
When you’re writing a blog, for example, it’s important to find your “voice”. This means that you decide on how formally you write, whether you address the audience or speak in third person, whether you’re writing a story or more like a tutorial. Your vocabulary (and which parts you decide to use or not!) also plays a role. When you’ve found your voice, people start recognizing it. Across blog posts your voice remains constant. If someone else writes a post, even if it’s posted in your name, people will recognize it’s a ghost writer. People notice it has become inconsistent with your voice.
The same goes for your messages to your employees. You have to decide on a system on what mode of communication to use (townhall meeting, webcast, email, sms, phone call, instagram, linkedin, facebook, tiktok), what title it should have (to draw attention, to show importance?) and how its content is structured. This should remain consistent.
Putting this down in writing and making a policy out of this is known as writing a Communication Plan and it’s vitally important to the consistency of your engagement of your audience.
For example, you could create a plan as follows (in broad strokes):
All non-critical communication goes via email, and each title shall include the words inform, notice, or reminder to show the broad meaning of the message. It must be in company font, with a header image selected from the catalog.
Quarterly updates will be by webcast, and each year there will be an interactive video broadcast to management. Townhall meetings will be scheduled to inform locations of changes or information relevant to their specific geography.
Critical updates will be via SMS and phone call to individuals, while groups will be alerted via our internal social media system.
All our company policies and information are classified public, confidential or secret, and stored in a cloud database. Employees can access each at any time via their accounts, and each communication will include links to relevant database items to support the message.
This is just a basic plan, but by making communication specific and consistent, it allows people to respond to what is important. Someone receiving an SMS from HR knows it’s critical, and will check it out. Townhall meetings mean that changes are afoot. An email that does not follow the described format will be met with distrust (such as spam mails imitating a company announcement with a spoofed email address).
This SHRM post shows some examples of inconsistent behavior, communication and decision-making that can be really harmful to your organization.
Tone in communication is strongly aligned with the style of leadership employed in your organization and your function and position within it. Each style has is its way of achieving results and their communications align with how much is shared, when, and by whom.
The most common forms of leadership employed in most organizations are autocratic, democratic and bureaucratic. They roughly correspond to private traditional companies, private modern organizations and public government organizations.
Autocratic: Interaction with employees occurs strictly through top-down updates and decisions. In autocratic systems leadership and decision making are separate from employees and even middle-management, who execute the orders and objectives passed down from above. The communication tone is formal and demanding.
This is a strong style for companies where the product or service sees no significant change for years or decades, and where the leadership are all considered (or required) to be experts in the field. Examples include oil companies and traditional crafts.
Democratic: Communication in democratic systems is two-way, with many avenues for offering input and suggestions. Leadership takes into account the expertise of its employees and uses a wide variety of dashboards and instruments for decision making. Their communication tone varies between formal when making announcements and updates, and informal when inspiring the employees or asking for their input and energy.
This style is suited for most companies and organizations, but it often evolves into transformational or situational styles. While the management need not be experts, in return they are often specialized in leadership and social connections instead, to manage a more complicated structure of control.
Bureaucratic: This style is similar to autocratic to casual observation, except that there is opportunity for feedback and suggestions from lower ranks in the hierarchy. All interactions are heavily regulated, formalized and scrutinized, and complicated systems of check and balance maintain power and control. The communication tone is formal on the outside, but decisions are often backed by a lot of informal communication that goes on behind the scenes.
Most often found in government organizations, and especially the military, this style exemplifies control through paper trail. Inefficiencies are weeded out, and success stories are transformed into building blocks for future strategies. Because of the reliance on bureaucracy, the system can break down easily without a line of command, unless each individual section has its own mandate of power, and can continue the leadership directives of its leadership individually.
Applying the right tone
Analyzing your leadership style, decide which tone suits your organization best. Maria Pellicano offers a nice summary here of a workshop led by Colin James regarding communication tones, with formal tones being educator and coach, and informal tones being motivator and colleague.
While she focuses mostly on voice and 1-on-1 communications, the same principles apply to written communication. And this means you have to apply the right tone.
Informing people is highly formal and expects little or no reply (Educator) while being chatty with colleagues is very informal and interactive. Motivator and coaches both seek to inspire and uplift employees, but whereas the coach is 1-on-1 and interactive, a motivator merely speaks to people (often in a crowd, such as a townhall meeting).
A worse scenario than being off in tone or consistency is to lack visibility at all. Human Resources, in whatever form it exists in your organization, needs to be aligned directly with your strategy to operate beyond basic capacity. This means that if you are not visible, people will either be in the dark about changes in policy, or will seek advice and assistance outside of your department, such as colleagues or management.
There are three major factors in visibility that you must take into account when deciding/implementing or changing your communication strategy.
Is my mandate clear?
No one is surprised when changes in pension plan are sent out by HR, or sales forecasts sent by management. But if HR were to send out messages concerning financial data, people would be mystified. It’s not their department, why are they sending this? Are they allowed to send that?
Mandate – what you are allowed to do because it is linked to your core purpose – is a very important factor in how your message is weighed in importance. Your messages must conform with the fields of work you actually perform.
Is my intent clear?
Are you asking a question, telling people what process to follow, or trying to inspire them to work a bit harder to reach monthly goals? Sometimes people will try to cram different messages together, and this will confuse your audience.
Imagine I’d start writing a blog post on communication styles, but halfway switch into how to work the stock exchange. You’d feel confused, likely angry, and definitely would be wondering if I would be qualified to write anything at all.
Each burst of communication must be about a single topic (unless it’s a newsletter or weekly summary or the like) and achieve its goal before the end of the message. It must contain all necessary information for the reader to respond to whatever call to action you include.
Is my audience clear?
People are sensitive to being spammed, and they will ignore messages after a while if they find out that they are being mis-targeted. If this happens, they will also miss important and targeted information which just happens to be sent by you.
At the very least, each piece of communication must reach its direct audience (those people who must act on your message). Then you must decide its indirect audience (those people who need to know, but not act). In an email, you would put your direct audience in your “To” list, and the others in your “CC” list. This conditions people to focus on messages where they are directly addressed – meaning you can make sure that their attention is drawn when you need it most.
The more specific you target, the more successful your messaging will be. This impacts all forms of communication. If you are advertising your blog, and its topic is “monetizing your garden” then you could send it to everyone who needs money, or who has a garden. This gets you a lot of views, but little engagement. You can specify it to people who need money and have a garden. Now you are getting a lot more engagement, because you are hitting closer to your intended audience. Finally, you could specify that you have tutorials on your blog (for people getting started) but also a forum for people who want to share experiences. Now you’ve split out your audience by experience level, and each gets its own niche messages. Engagement increases even further as novices will home in on your blog, and experts visit the forum.
By being consistent, applying the right tone, and making sure the correct audience is prompted by your communications, you will already greatly improve the efficiency of your messages.
Communication is a massive field of social studies, and it has many specific skills critical to leadership. From sensing the general mood in the company, and brewing discontent among your managers to knowing what messages to send to effect the changes you want and being able to reward initiative and apologize for changes made, how we interact with out colleagues and employees has massive impact in the effectiveness of our organizations.
HR Communication, specifically, is a field where a lot of improvement and evolution is needed. Not just to adjust to the changes in how HR works and what theories underpin its success in operations, but also to the changes in how we communicate as a society, and how each generation experiences and uses these ways differently.
Expect more posts from me on this topic, as this will be one of the major things where HR can make a difference.