Imagine that you’re a physician, ready to work with your patients and help them thrive. Your patients come in, and you try taking a family history, doing a complete physical and ordering appropriate lab work before diagnosing the problem — and suggesting an approach. But alas. Your patients aren’t interested because they already know that all they need is a new bottle of …

Oh, I feel your pain, frustrated physician. Employee communications often suffers from this same syndrome — capabilities misunderstood, value uncertain, leading to less-than-optimal results.

And frankly, it’s understandable. As a profession, we’ve gone through a huge amount of change over the past 10 years. Go on, tell me what comes to mind when you think about employee communications:

  • Writer
  • Researcher
  • Benefits communicator
  • Newsletter editor
  • Speech writer

And you’d be right. We do all of that, and we have to do it well. But while that’s necessary, it is not sufficient. Because employee communications should be so much more. Here’s what comes to my mind when I think about employee communications:

  • Influencer
  • Coach
  • Advisor
  • Risk manager
  • Engagement expert
  • Change agent
  • Truth teller

Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re thinking that I have a rather grandiose view of my profession. And I do. But only because I’ve lived it and have seen the difference it can make to the culture and success of a company. Let’s look at an example that is very fresh to all of us — a high-tech company which made an important announcement.

Yahoo

The story is well known by now. High-tech company struggling to rebuild its products, culture and reputation announces a new “work only from the office” policy. Proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. Howls of protest from employees. “They don’t get it” criticism from the media. Defenders of the decision, pointing out the advantage of in-person teamwork in an innovation company.

Here’s the email from Human Resources that started it all:


YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD

Yahoos,

Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J, we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.

Jackie


Was the email well written? Why yes, it was. Was the messaging clear? Yep, it was crystal clear. Was it obvious that this was for internal purposes only and wasn’t to be shared? Uh huh.

There was clearly a good writer at work. A lot of thought went into the messaging. From a tactical standpoint, it’s hard to criticize this communication.

Except it failed spectacularly.

Because this was far more than a tactical communication issue — it was a strategic communication issue, involving change management, leadership and cross-department collaboration.

Instead of sending an HR memo out to employees, suppose this had happened:

  1. The business researched the impact of work-at-home employees and has decided that the best way to maximize innovation and grow a healthy, productive culture is to have all employees work from the office.
  2. A meeting is called with internal communications, external communications and human resources. Actions prior to communication are identified.
  3. A change management plan is put into place, analyzing stakeholders, potential risks and opportunities, and putting great clarity around communication objectives of knowledge, attitude and action.
  4. With the results of the change management plan in place, it’s clear that highly personal, sensitive and strong leadership is an imperative for success. The CEO is set up as the champion of the change, and the main spokesperson for it. Key stakeholders are informed of what is happening and why in advance of the communication.
  5. On announcement day, the CEO holds a global town hall. With use of technology, she acknowledges that this was a difficult decision to make, because it does impact employees so strongly. She then sets out the business case for it, clearly explaining what’s in it for the company and for employees. Her comments are followed by 45 minutes of questions and answers.
  6. Managers are given support materials to explain the change in the context of their own departments.

Will Yahoos be happy employees after this announcement? No. It’s bad news for them no matter how you paint it. But at least they’ll understand the reason for the change, and they’ll respect their leadership for having the guts to personally talk about it and openly answer questions in an adult, straightforward way.

So what do employee communicators who are at the top of their game do? I repeat:

  • We’re risk managers, protecting our companies from rash actions.
  • We’re coaches and advisors, helping our executives communicate in a way that enhances their reputations and ensures communication success.
  • We’re change agents, leading the change management effort to make sure the communication, when it happens, occurs in the optimal environment.
  • We’re influencers, using our knowledge of employee perspectives and business needs to shape the discussion.
  • We’re truth tellers, willing to talk about the ugly truth, even when that’s painful.

Writers? You bet. Deck creators? Of course. But the very best communicators do so much more. And your company is healthier and stronger for it.

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