Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, I’ll talk to them! says the executive who reads Alexander Heron’s serial moralizing about the importance of communicating with employees. But what, pray tell, am I supposed to say? Good news! That’s what Heron gets to next, in Chapter Five of Sharing Information with Employees. —DM
Heron’s list of proposed employee communication topics is remarkable only in that it’s pretty much the same stuff we talk to employees about today: company finances, company position in its own industry, company products in their uses, expansion plans, sales and order prospects, research activities, industry outlook. And the like. (The list does also prominently include “company history,” which companies these days cover in five minutes in employee orientation. But don’t get Studs Terkel and me started on the subject of cultural Alzheimer’s.)
Heron starts to get interesting—and simultaneously begins to address the fierce “upward communication” types who read Writing Boots—when he writes that leaders can’t simply decide to share that which they think employees ought to know.
“Our own experience is not a true guide as to what information will enable the employee to understand the business,” Heron writes. “The information which will do this is the information which answers his own questions. We must plan to share with him the information he wants to get.”
And how, asks the executive—or the VP of corporate communication—am I supposed to figure out what that is? Heron’s answer is comprehensive and more jarring to the modern ear, I suspect, than to that of his 1942 reader:
Still others will relate to rumors which have blossomed on the “grapevine,” chance comments in casual conversations, and comments which reflect unfortunate misconceptions of many phases of the business. These chance expressions of mistaken ideas are priceless indications of the subject matter on which employees both need and want information. The fact that employees have heard, remembered, and repeated a wrong report is evidence that the subject involved is one in which they are interested.
Whatever the source of our ideas of what employees want to know, a careful listing of that supposedly desired information will produce something quiet different in form from our own list of classes of information which we hope to share with employees.
Did you get that, all you strategic communicators, who use mechanical terms like “message drivers,” who prattle on about “behavior change” and who treat employee communication as a tidy thing that more or less fits on a three-page strategic plan?
Think of the inherent talent and learned skill that Heron is demanding of the communication manager, who must sensitively and insightfully intuit what employees want to know about. And we’re not talking about doing a few focus groups or surveys here, because employees don’t know themselves what they’re really curious about.
We’re talking about someone who can move around the organization with intelligence, charm, intellectual curiosity and dogged ambition in order to understand this corporate community better than any other single person in it. (Hey, remember when the employee communication business was populated by ex-journalists? For good reason! So when and why did we decide reporters were no longer good candidates for employee communication? Well, hell, there sure are a lot of them with free schedules these days.)
And once he or she has come to understand the workforce, division by division, location by location, department by department, the internal communicator needs to use that knowledge to communicate what the organization wants communicated—the shared reality that will become the “understanding” between management and employees that Heron prescribes.
So the CEO or the VP of human resources wants employees to understand corporate finances. Short of sending each one of them to business school, fat chance—unless you find a way to meet employees where they live.
“We cannot intelligently assume that employees are interested in the broad subject of wages as an element of operating costs,” Heron offers by way of example, “but we can recall very clearly that John Brown wanted to know why his job pays only $32 a week while the same job at the Jones Corporation pays $38. …
We have agreed in the abstract that employees should know more about company costs. But we may not identify this conclusion with the unreasonable desire of the salesgirls to know the real cost of the hairbrush which sells for $3.00 and on which their sales commission is only 18 cents.
We may not, but we must. Heron is saying that anything short of seeking out employees’ questions and answering them—with management’s agenda and the general health of the corporation in mind, it goes without saying—is inadequate and will be ineffective in creating a healthy understanding between employees and management, in getting everyone in the organization moving in the same general direction.
To the employee communicator in 1942, with only the paycheck stuffer, the house organ, the bulletin board and the “employee mass meetings” at his or her disposal, Heron's must have been a daunting assignment.
And to the modern employee communicator, still daunting. But with a communication blog and Twitter, cheap videos and podcasts, it seems possible to communicate with employees with the spontaneity and suppleness Heron’s communication prescription demands.
But that still leaves the intellect, intuition, charm and the drive to be desired.
Communicators: Do you have it?
Note: In the next installment of our series, we’ll make a brief and amusing departure from my general portrayal of Heron as an employee communication prophet. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say those who find Heron a wee bit condescending will have their day. —DM