Should I Stay or Should I Go?
1 March 2006 Keith Burton
Keith Burton, Insidedge, describes how effective employee communications fuels employee retention. He also highlights evidence from a recent survey, which demonstrates the similarities between employee attitudes in the UK and the US.
Strategic employee communications has been an evolving – though at times frustrating and elusive – art among corporate communications, HR and other functions at countless organisations globally. Employees today increasingly distrust information received from corporate sources, and question the credibility of those sources. They feel little in terms of company loyalty. And, in many cases, they expect to change jobs several times throughout their careers.
Indeed, employee retention – particularly related to high-performing individuals – is an increasing challenge to corporations around the globe. Turnover takes a toll on the morale of existing staff, on business continuity and productivity. Ultimately, the loss of talent hits a company's bottom line.
In many cases, the financial impact is severe, both in terms of increased recruiting fees and downtime associated with the on-boarding of new hires.
However, there is a strategy for countering attrition: the practice of effective employee communication. And we know it works, by the company it keeps among those best-in-class organisations in Europe, Asia and North America.
BUILDING A LINK
The traditional Achilles' heel for employee communications practitioners has been their struggle to link effective internal communication with performance and retention. In an attempt to establish that link, Insidedge, a leading worldwide employee communications consultancy, conducted a survey late in 2005 of nearly 2,300 white- and blue-collar employees in the UK and the US, about the importance of employee communications.
The results were startling. Between 75% and 80% of employees in the UK and the US claim the way their company communicates with them has some influence on their decisions about whether they remain with their current employers or leave for greener pastures. More significantly, 30% in the UK and 31% in the US said communications has a big influence on their decision.
And nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed worldwide (68% UK and 73% US) said improving communications would influence their attitudes about staying or going.
In an era when employee turnover costs companies millions of dollars each year, it is important to know that candid, two-way communication between a company and its people can fuel employee retention.
CHANNELS OF TRUST
Now that we've established the correlation between communication, trust and retention, it is valuable to consider the best ways to communicate in a way that employees trust.
We asked our participants to tell us which forms of communication they trust most from their employers. Our findings reinforce a commonly held belief: employees trust face-to-face communication the most, and look to their immediate supervisors as the most credible source of information.
However, we confirmed that multi-channel communication – across several media – reinforces the trust of employees.
The most trusted sources of information for UK employees are their immediate day-to-day supervisors, immediate co-workers and senior employees who can mentor and advise them, regardless of title. Each of these high-touch forms of communication has greater influence on behaviour and commitment than more common sources such as newsletters, email and intranets.
Unfortunately, we see too many companies that rely substantially on these impersonal forms of communication, instead of equipping and expecting their managers to communicate. Devoid of information, employees turn to each other to interpret company decisions and actions, and misinformation based on opinion becomes 'fact' to employees. This is a dangerous precedent that further erodes trust.
In order to build trust with communications, it is essential that corporations empower and enable managers and supervisors to serve as a primary source of information and communications.
The Insidedge survey indicated that the top three most effective ways to communicate with employees in the UK are small workgroup or departmental meetings, led by division heads and / or immediate supervisors (51%); open-door policies, suggestion boxes and other ways employees can take initiative to communicate with management (43%); and informal get-togethers where employees can talk and exchange ideas (35%).
These top three preferences are mirrored by counterparts in the US, meaning the workforces in the two countries are largely similar in their desires and expectations for communications.
CANDOUR AND TIMELINESS
Improving how you communicate is only one part of the battle. Equally important is what and when you communicate. In other words, using myriad resources to share information (supervisors, newsletters, blogs, intranets, etc.) is half of the equation.
Ensuring that the information you share is accurate, timely, truthful and complete – and that employees have the opportunity to participate in an open dialogue – is the other half. This was confirmed by our respondents.
We asked them to identify the three most important things their employers could do to change communication. In both the UK and the US, they agreed that the top three things employers should do would be to:
- Create a free and open environment where all feel comfortable expressing opinions, ideas and suggestions (41% in the UK and 42% in the US listed this as a top-three change they'd like to see)
- Be more open, honest and straightforward, even when communicating difficult or bad news (40% in the UK, 36% in the US)
- Share information and communicate in a timely manner so 'I don't feel like I'm the last to know'
WHAT EMPLOYEES WANT TO KNOW
It's interesting to note the degree to which UK and US employees agree about employee communications. One distinction is visible in the topics employees are most interested in hearing about from their employers. In the UK, the top issues relate to overall job fulfilment and satisfaction, while in the US issues relating to money and compensation reign supreme.
The top seven most important issues and topics employees want to discuss with their employers in the UK are outlined below with the percentage of respondents who ranked the issue among their top three most important:
- Training and education that can advance my career and make me a more productive contributor – 57%
- Career advancement, promotions and job satisfaction – 54%
- Flexible time, job sharing, telecommuting and other ways to balance work and personal life – 49%
- Vacation, personal time and similar benefits – 43%
- Incentives, bonuses, stock options and other income beyond base pay – 41%
- Quality, quantity, style and substance of communication between my employer and I – 38%
- Work rules, working conditions, overtime and similar things that affect my day-to-day worklife – 38%
By comparison, the top three issues American respondents said are most important include:
- Pay / compensation, especially compared with others in the organisation or industry
- Incentives, bonuses, stock options and other income beyond base pay
- Career advancement, promotions, job satisfaction, etc.
In our experience, in recent years, companies and their executives have started to understand the importance and value of effective communication. As we speak today with CEOs, HR directors and other key executives, they are more likely than in years past to ask how communication can drive employee commitment and performance.
The key now is to turn talk into action. Certainly successful business models, solid products, and great reputations and brands are key to any business's success. But without an engaged and tenured workforce, plans can fail, products may not reach their full potential and brands can suffer.
Fortunately, motivated leaders can enhance their communications with employees and build the levels of trust and retention needed to win in the marketplace. So, as you think about your plans for employee communications, keep a few things in mind:
Listen to your employees: regular research – whether through all-employee surveys, periodic and targeted focus groups or even event-specific feedback forms – provides an insight into what people care about most. By knowing what your employees believe is important, you are better equipped to address their concerns, and in turn build their trust. Just as external research guides the decisions you make in marketing to customers and consumers, employee research should guide your plans for internal communication.
Build a manager-as-supervisor culture: study after study shows that managers and supervisors are vital communicators. Yet, so many companies fail to take advantage. It's not enough to give your supervisors information. You've also got to develop their skills as communicators, and then hold them accountable for communicating.
Put your people first: how often has your company launched a new product, broadcast or published a new marketing campaign, or announced a new strategic direction without telling your employees first? Remember that your employees are the people who have to sell your products, represent your brand and execute your strategies. If you're not sharing this information with them before you go public, they are already one step behind in being able to deliver. Have a plan to share important information with your employees first, so that they are ready to respond when customers call. Don't let your people hear about new initiatives on the radio, TV or in the newspaper before they hear it from you!
Give it to them straight: most companies are more than eager to share good news with their people, and to celebrate success. As our survey confirms, people also want to hear the bad news, no matter how difficult it might be to take. Sooner or later, the word is going to get out. Wouldn't you prefer that your employees hear it straight from you than through the grapevine? Have a plan to share all of your news with your people. They will trust you more if you are willing to share not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly with them.