Improving the Conversation

A new survey finds many organizations need to improve how they communicate vital information to the workforce. Here's what HR can do.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
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Most employees at large companies in the United States report that HR communication does not prepare them to make smart decisions.

That's according to the findings of a new study of 1,000 American workers, titled Human Resources Communication Study and published by Glen Rock, N.J.-based Davis & Co. It reports that, while almost all respondents read or skim HR communications, only 30 percent are happy with the communications they receive, and 50 percent feel indifferent. The study also noted that branch and satellite office employees are twice as unhappy with HR communications in comparison to employees at headquarters.

In specific, only 25 percent of employees feel they receive the information they need related to compensation, 15 percent feel they receive the information they need pertaining to benefits, and a mere 11.5 percent feel they receive the information they need regarding performance management.

"The good news is that employees care about HR communication," says Alison Davis, CEO of Davis & Co. "However, employees' needs are not being met. They find HR communication to be too complex and inconvenient."

Results from an Aon Hewitt Workforce Mindset study show similar results -- specifically, that 40 percent of respondents to the survey agreed or strongly agreed that "communication from HR is effective.""This result would support the overall finding [of the Davis & Company survey] to some extent -- that there is definitely room for improvement in HR communication from the employees' perspective," says Ray Baumruk, a partner in the employee research and insights, communications consulting practice at Aon Hewitt in Chicago. "That said, there are significant differences in perceptions based on the topic."

For example, according to the Aon Hewitt study, over three quarters of respondents said that communication they received about company-provided benefits, base pay and information related to their job and performance was valuable. However, communications about incentive/bonus pay, financial planning and work/life balance were less likely to be viewed as valuable by employees.

When asked to identify the main problems with communication, the top responses from participants in the Aon Hewitt study fell into three primary categories:

First, "people have lost trust in the authenticity of the communication they receive," says Baumruk. "It is often viewed as less than straightforward, with some hidden agenda or even 'full of spin.' "

The second category relates to relevance, as employees often feel the communication they receive is not important to them directly, says Baumruk. Finally, the problem often comes less from the content, but more from the experience or action, the communication is trying to produce. "When taking action on the communication is less than convenient or takes significant attention or multiple administrative steps," he says, "the experience becomes frustrating and less effective."

Making sure that communication is authentic, hyper-relevant and focused on the experience is a good start, says Baumruk. "One great way to improve communication is to ask employees how they want to receive and engage in the communication, and act upon those preferences and desires when possible."

HR doesn't need to share every detail, says Davis. "Instead, create simple, timely communication that focuses on what employees need to know and do. In HR communication today, less is truly more."

Andrea Wolf, the HR practice leader for North America at Los Angeles-based Futurestep, a Korn Ferry company, says e-mails from HR are often too generic and lack a "What's in it for me?" or "What am I supposed to do about this?" message for employees. She recommends making sure that important communication is actionable and offers the following example:

- Issue: All employees must re-enroll for benefits.

- Your Action: Log onto xyz website by xyz date.

- What Happens if You Don't Act: Your benefits will not be renewed.

Experts also recommend personalizing the messages whenever possible. "For example, if you want to promote your high-deductible health plan, a personal message to each employee that shows how much money they can save on premiums and sock away in an HSA is one of the most effective ways to drive desired behavior change," says Kate Van Hulzen, the global leader for communication and change management at Towers Watson in Houston.

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"Follow up with human interaction, such as town-hall meetings or stand-up department meetings to highlight key points, and open it up for questions," says Wolf. This fosters a culture that shows the company cares about employees and wants their voices to be heard. "Smaller companies can be more organic in their communications, using in-person meetings followed up by next-step e-mails," she says.

However, this human interaction can also take place in large companies that have HR professionals in each office or plant. "The core message should come from corporate HR, but it should be at the discretion of the local HR managers [as to] how that information is cascaded," she says. "They should tailor communications to the audience and the specific questions that they might have."

Employees have high expectations for their ability to access anything, any time and from anywhere, says Baumruk, so those expectations and desires come with them for internal communications as well.

"However," he says, "it is important that organizations don't rely on only one form of communication for everything, and that they support a culture of positive trust for social media channels to deliver the benefits effectively."

Social media is a must, especially for millenials and Gen Z employees, says Wolf. "But know when to use it. Conveying messages [via social media] around employee stock options is probably not a good idea." However, showcasing last week's Habitat for Humanity team event on Twitter, for example, or creating a wellness contest highlighting which team of employees logged the most miles on their FitBit is fun and culture-building, would be good uses of social-media platforms.

"Social media has made organizations transparent to everyone, as employees, candidates and others openly discuss their workplace cultures, programs, benefits and compensation," says Van Hulzen. "Given this reality, HR should aim to include social media in the mix of channels that are necessary to build trust and engage with their current and future workforce."

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