Hands up if you think your company is doing a great job of communicating with you. I don’t mean the daily nasty-gram about the security training; I mean the whole enchilada about mission, vision, values, goals, changes, culture and, yes, compliance training.
Here’s why most organizations suck at employee communications: it’s nobody’s job. Not really. In many organizations, the person who is stuck with employee communications is not coping very well, and the usual reason is that it’s not their job, or not their whole job, or not their real job or not a job they actually like. Here’s what it looks like in most places.
The Hobby Job
You know about hobby jobs, don’t you?
Those are the fun extra responsibilities, usually self-imposed, that pile up around your real job. Some of us get hobby jobs involving the United Way campaign or the social committee, but many more of us take on something like the diversity tiger team or that project that nobody else wants to manage or, some well-meaning chump in marketing or HR decides to do something about the abysmal state of employee communications.
For a while, it’s awesome. Everyone’s thrilled they’re stepping up, they’re learning new stuff, making a difference, inspiring their coworkers and all that crap. But when their real job gets, well… real, guess where the hobby job goes? That’s right. It goes away. About the only thing worse than crappy employee communications is inconsistent employee communications.
Counting on someone who can do your employee communications off the side of their desk because it’s just so fun is not actually a strategy. We need someone who can do it full-time and stay with it.
Employees can tell when their communications are someone’s side hustle.
Well how about Sandy? We all know Sandy. She’s been at the company forever. Single digit employee number and all that. She’s some kind of friend or relative of someone important and will never, ever appear on a downsizing list. What to do with bullet-proof Sandy? What the hell, give her the employee newsletter. That’ll keep her busy.
As nice as it is to keep Sandy busy, let me submit that if employee communications is classified as the same busywork as picking out boardroom chairs, matching the flipchart pads to the flipchart stands or auditing the vegan options in the lunchroom, then you are not taking it seriously.
There’s an actual skillset involved in this work, and the likelihood that the Sandys of the world just happen to be really good at communications strategy, planning and execution are probably on the low side.
Employees can tell when communications are a make-work project for a corporate lifer.
The Employee Communications Intern
Okay, okay. We’ll find something else for Sandy to do and we’ll admit that employee communications requires some baseline skills and we’ll hire an intern. Swell. Good for you. Interns are terrific resources for employee communications. It’s a great place to start a career, hone those writing and technical skills, get to understand how companies work and all that.
Here’s the thing: your intern knows basically nothing about your organization, its culture, its politics and its values when they walk in the door. If they are bright, and you are lucky, they will just begin to figure it out about the time their internship ends and they need to go back to school.
Continuity is too important in employee communications to leave the whole thing to someone who is going to turn to pixie dust at the end of April.
By all means cycle interns through the function, but only if there’s a full-time person actually running things.
Employees can tell when their communications are coming from a place of cluelessness.
The Bait & Switch
Here is a corporate survival tip for you: never admit to anyone that you can write, speak French or do good PowerPoint. Once they know, you are doomed forever to be helping your executives with their LinkedIn profiles, double-checking machine translations, and “spiffing” up the damn quarterly forecast deck.
That first one is a problem when you’re the employee communications person. It’s sort of implied that you know your way around the whole writing thing. And once word gets out, you are easy pickings for the marketing team, customer service, sales, HR and pretty much everyone who needs some “wordsmithing” (if that word makes you cringe, you’re probably a good writer).
I hear every day from people who were hired on to do the employee communications and were quietly re-vectored to another “project” from which there is no apparent return. I was hired once to manage corporate communications, only to learn in my second month that what they really wanted was a marketer but they couldn’t get the headcount approved.
Naturally, I was still accountable for getting the internal and external communications done, but it wasn’t actually my real job any longer.
Employees can tell when their communications are being put together in the ladies room between meetings.
Sometimes the opposite problem comes along. Sometimes we hire someone to manage employee communications, but by that we really mean the tedious job of updating the intranet every day and cranking out a bunch of weekly posters for the employees who don’t have desks.
We certainly expect this poor soul to be doing this, plus coming up with engagement strategies, supporting organizational change, stepping in where there’s a crisis and making our executives sound like they know what they’re doing. But, alas, that intranet isn’t going update itself, and, sorry, there’s just no budget for an intern or a freelancer.
Employees can tell when their communications are thinly veiled cries for help.
The Internal Communications Drive Thru
If every other person you meet in your first week as the employee communications manager says “thank God you’re here” you are about to have a problem. Either a few executives are about to be perp-walked and you’ll have to explain it, or, more likely, there are years’ worth of communications waiting to be set free.
It’ll start innocently enough: some executive will invite you to a meeting to “get to know you” and you’ll walk out with their hand-written newsletter draft, photos from a team building event and the Gantt chart from a giant project everyone is going to need to know about by next week because that’s when it’s launching.
While you’re chewing your way through that and trying to pull your overall plan together, you’ll have a few casual drop-ins looking for some help with a holiday party invite, the new benefits plan and the latest twaddle from the #cleankitchen committee.
A few days later the sales director will stop by to discuss the weekly newsletter she needs you to put together, and the folks from IT will be right behind with their request for a fun and accessible video about distributed systems.
The result will be a cascade of random, mostly pointless, messages that will cross stuff of a few to-do lists and confuse everyone else.
Employees can tell when their communications are being ordered up like a Whopper combo
Employee Communications Should be On Purpose
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that few other roles in most organizations are as subject to sabotage (deliberate or negligent) as employee communications. Maybe it’s because the function is a bit orphaned, maybe it’s because nobody really thinks it’s a real job or maybe there’s not enough funding to give it traction.
Given how horrible most employee engagement scores are, and how competitive the labour market is becoming, perhaps it’s time we were a bit more intentional about how we design, fund, staff and support the employee communications function.
For 2019, let’s make a resolution to define the internal communications role(s), just like we would any other. Let’s find it a permanent (and sensible) home in the organization chart, and, while we’re at it, let’s bake in a whole bunch of accountability for it being done well.