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HR Leadership Column

Talk it Up

Communication -- with the goal of sharing information as a way to create trust -- should be the top priority of senior-level HR leaders this coming year. Trusting that employees can understand the complex business environment they work in allows them to make better business decisions.

Monday, December 26, 2011
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I hate lists of New Year's resolutions. They just serve to remind me of things I've failed to do in the past. I don't need a list to remind me. I know.

So there's no way I am going to provide a list of resolutions for HR leaders to consider for the New Year. Instead, I'm going to suggest just one thing for HR leaders to consider for 2012. Think of it as sort of a North Star to guide you for the coming year. Keep an eye on it, check to see if you're following it. I know it will help you and your organization get to where you want to be. 

What is it? 

Communicate.

Then communicate, communicate and communicate some more.

Communicate with your HR team, with your CEO and other executives, with employees. 

But don't go into the process with the goal of sharing information. Communicate with the goal of creating trust.

I sometimes share office space with my husband, who also works from home. It really hasn't been a problem, and at times, it's actually interesting, because I've been able to listen in on his all-employee Internet "meetings."

He works for a large technology company, with many thousands of employees working from home, and the webcasts are regularly reported on in the press. I don't feel guilty when I eavesdrop; I know the company doesn't have any expectation of privacy with the meetings. 

This fall, I listened in when the new CEO was introduced. She's the third CEO for the company in less than a year. I had heard the previous CEO speak, and hadn't been very impressed, so I was curious to see how the new one "performed." 

The CHRO served as the emcee, introducing the new CEO and the Chairman of the Board. They both spoke for a few minutes -- acknowledged the challenges facing the company and their plans for the future -- before the CHRO opened up the floor to unscreened questions.

Some employee questions were easy; most were pretty pointed. After all, a company that has three CEOs in a year deserves tough questions from employees.

It was a masterful production. The communication was clear, with the leaders concisely sharing their plans for the future and answering questions directly and clearly. They acknowledged mistakes that had been made in the past, and spoke about their intentions to focus on employee professional development, succession planning and reaffirming the company culture. And they underscored the importance of delivering results to the shareholders. 

Was it a success? Sure, as far as sharing information. But as one of my husband's colleagues said to me when I asked what she thought of the meeting, "It was great. But I'll wait and see what happens. I've heard it all before." 

The communication was there, but trust? That depends on whether employees actually see improvement. 

In tough economic times, it's easy to overlook the importance of communications, because the focus is on survival; it feels safer to put your head down, dig in and get the work out. 

Since you don't know what the future brings, you figure it's better not to say anything. After all, everyone knows that times are tough, right? And sometimes it feels like "communication" isn't very concrete, and should be secondary to getting the "real work" done. 

Big mistake. 

Every competency model for the HR profession I've seen highlights the importance of being able to communicate, both orally and verbally. And recent research from i4cp (Institute for Corporate Productivity) highlights the value of meaningful communications to business outcomes.

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The research finds that low-performing companies are focused on internal communications as a means to disseminate emergency, crisis and safety information, while high performers use "internal communications to deliver higher-level information, including policy changes, company successes, company financials and even pay-for-performance information."

I think it's this higher-level communication -- about the company's successes and failures, its strategy and financials -- which is key to helping to build trust with employees, when it's delivered regularly and in a straightforward manner.

After all, regularly sharing this information demonstrates the company treats its employees as adults -- which they are -- capable of understanding the complex environment within which the company is operating. 

Trust begets trust, and employees armed with more information about the business make better decisions for the business.

Communication for the purpose of building trust takes work; it's not a secondary part of the HR job. 

Its demand is relentless. It means knowing the business well enough to build internal networks to facilitate the flow of information to help employees do their jobs better. It means helping other executives understand the importance of sharing strategy and financial information with their employees.

And it means being an activist throughout the organization, ensuring that the information shared with employees is truthful -- and trustworthy.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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