Communicating with Employees
Learning how to effectively communicate with employees took me many years to develop and refine. It sounds simple: tell them what is going on, listen to what they have to say and then they will do what you need them to do — but it is never that easy.
It is all about developing trust and confidence through consistency, openness, transparency and repetition. After completing my own search, and running the business for 21 years, I developed a number of ways to communicate effectively.
Monthly Review Meetings
Our cornerstone communications event was the monthly “all hands” meetings with employees. It was targeted to be held during the second week of each month and never “skipped” or “canceled,” and as President or GM, I always had to be there, no substitutions or stand-ins.
End-of-day or first thing in the morning did not work well since employees were focused on their next activity. After lunch seemed to be the best time, but we learned never to “dim” the lights so everyone was awake. Second and third shift meetings had a slightly different schedule, but always happened on the same day as the rest.
The general agenda was always the same and included a discussion of the orders and shipments for the last month, a review of key “measurements,” gross margins, discussions about safety and quality followed by a variety of topics such as policy changes, upcoming events, customer highlights, team presentations and profit sharing announcements. The meeting length was an hour and always started on time with presentations from a number of my direct reports in addition to myself.
Consistency was important with these meetings; employees knew that there was a regular opportunity to hear how the business was doing and to raise questions if they had any. Because of the large size of the meetings, even the most vocal critics would be shy about asking questions in front of their peers.
“Repetition” was important, often covering descriptions of various benefits changes month after month or even yearly. Humor also helped. I remember once being wrapped up in a fire blanket, rolled on the floor and doused with a Carbon Dioxide fire extinguisher to emphasize fire safety, and around Halloween, the staff all wore costumes. From time to time, we provided “celebration” lunches before these meetings; as my Mom told me, food is the most direct way to the heart!
I found that the monthly meetings did not have enough opportunity for listening to specific issues that employees had and therefore we held monthly “Employee Council” meetings consisting of 10 volunteer representatives rotating from various departments to meet as a group with me.
No managers attended and members were encouraged to bring questions from their “groups,” and again—names were not mentioned and the “state of the business” was always discussed along with safety and quality. Meetings last about an hour, there was lots of dialogue and a summary of the questions and responses was included in payroll check envelopes for the week.
About 10 days before the meeting a “Question Box” was put out to solicit anonymous or signed questions that would be addressed at the conclusion of each meeting. I worked hard to provide answers to any question, and issues that were unresolved remained on the list and were reviewed each month. Questions about personal issues or that called out specific individuals were handled “off-line”.
Examples would include: inadequate snow shoveling and sand in the driveways, temperature levels in the offices, poor quality of the cleaning services, requests to add specific benefits to our offering, more durable gloves in the press area, questions about specific customers, etc.
In November of each year, this group also allocated the 11 vacation days across the next year’s calendar, sharing the responsibility for the dates selected. They also provided members for organizing lunches, holiday grabs, and other employee events. Letting employees be fully engaged in these dates and events resulted in a sense of control over areas that were important to them.
Staff and Shift Meetings
Monthly staff meetings, 3 hours long, seemed to work best with a fixed agenda and deeper dives into strategy, tactics and policies in each area. This was also encouraged at the Department level to push down information into each area.
We also held a daily full shift overlap meeting for 15 minutes, despite the challenges in the parking lot and the loss of productivity and machine time because they were invaluable in passing on critical info and data. Various message boards in each unit recorded information to be passed from shift to shift.
Reinforcing Messages and Surveys
Our cafeteria area had a looping power-point presentation that was updated weekly and highlighted key measurements, customer activity, safety programs and significant milestones and employee anniversaries.
Top management team was encouraged to always walk the shop floor and dialogue with employees, including answering questions and inquiries about the business.
Every two years we used a 60-question employee survey to solicit input and measure ourselves against prior surveys.
Things to avoid
A suggestion box was demoralizing and a nightmare to maintain, adjudicate and often time ended up rewarding those whose job it was to come up with cost savings.
Unless you can dedicate resources to a monthly Newsletter, it can become very irregular and difficult to meet the “consistency and frequency” test that is so critical to all communications.
We were very careful about rolling out new initiatives. Unless it was something we could sustain for at least 5 years, we handled it as a project. We worked hard to prevent the “program of the month/year” syndrome.
As a CEO, you want to be able to “listen a lot, talk less and say more”. Everyone knows you are the boss, but it is always useful to ask yourself, “Why am I talking”! Asking good questions is a lot better than giving good answers. Be predictable and keep your emotions in check.
These communications techniques cannot be “delegated” to Human Resources and have to be led by the management team, setting examples for the department, area and shift meetings.
All in all, these were all simple and straightforward ways to have a dialogue with employees. They were successful because management was visible on a regular basis with consistently presented information, and issues and challenges were transparent to everyone in the business.
Feel free to share some of your own best practices or experiences in dealing with these issues in the blog comments. I encourage comments and dialog, allowing all to learn from both my views and the views of others – a virtuous learning cycle. Jump right in!
Jim, great post. In addition to frequency & consistency, one thing that I’ve found to be important is to ensure that the informal channels of communication are always open as well. Although things like monthly review meetings are very helpful, it’s equally important to set up avenues of communication for everyday, informal, one-off type items.
Against this backdrop, one thing that I’ve found to be very helpful from a communication standpoint is to set up an internal “CEO blog”. Whenever something noteworthy (or a string of communication that I want to get in front of) arises, I simply blog about it. Nothing formal, nothing planned, and it doesn’t take all that long to write. I sometimes blog about important things (monthly revenue results relative to target, strategy notes, etc.), but also less important things (updates from conferences that I’ve attended, changes to seating plans, etc.). There’s also “like” and comment functionality underneath each blog post so that discussions can be had if there are any questions.
I think both informal arrangements (like blogs), as well as formal arrangements (like monthly all-hands meetings) are reasonably useful on their own, but together are a great recipe for open communication.
Steve, I appreciate your jumping in. The internal blog is a great tool and much better in my opinion than email for these types of impromptu messages. Like any method, just be aware that once you start it, you have to be committed to continuing it – your employees are watching, and counting the frequency of your posts! Operate on!