Outsidein on How Startups Can Master Employee Communications
“Communication is so essential to that employment experience.”
That’s how Catherine Ducharme – sharing the line with Sharon Habib – kicks off our phone conversation. The two ladies are brand and communication strategists and the founding duo behind Vancouver-based Outsidein Communications.
Adds Sharon: “It’s really the only tool you have to engage, connect, inspire, attract and keep people loyal.”
They know what they’re talking about. Veterans in their field with “more years experience than (they’d) care to admit,” Catherine and Sharon have helped leverage the power of communications and brand for the likes of The College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta (redefining the member experience from the inside out) Seacliff Construction (keeping staff committed during IPO and acquisition), Licensed Opticians (gaining nation-wide buy-in and alignment on the inside), and BuildDirect (defining a compelling and competitive employer brand).
What’s the secret? How can startups and fast-growing businesses harness – and master – the power of employee communications? Build trust, loyalty and engagement that leads to so many (as we‘ll soon learn) benefits to your business?
The ladies kindly agreed to a little Q&A …
“Companies that communicate effectively at the outset have better financial returns, more engaged employees, and there’s tons of evidence out there to back that up.”
What is employee communications? Why should employers care about – put time and resources into – it?
Sharon: Communication is the lifeblood of any organization. So employee communications is how the organization communicates to its employees in a focused way.
Failure to do that means missing out on incredible opportunities – because nothing happens without communication. It’s like a strategic asset that helps glue employees to where the organization is going. It’s what communicates the big-picture context, and it really helps to get people on the same page.
And really, it’s interactive. Employee communications sounds one-way, but it shouldn’t be. Communication is a conversation.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s three-way communications: top-down, bottom-up, across from major group to major group. So it’s not just “here’s the information we’re disseminating”, it really is “lets have the conversation, the discussion, the questions”.
“Employee communications sounds one-way, but it shouldn’t be. Communication is a conversation.”
When does a fledgling business or startup need to start thinking about this?
Catherine: Companies that communicate effectively at the outset have better financial returns, more engaged employees, and there’s tons of evidence out there to back that up. There are so many good – even practical – reasons to do it.
People who join your company as employees, they want to help you succeed and they want to contribute to that success. So the more context they have, the more they understand where you’re going and what that vision is, they’ll be able to help you get there.
It doesn’t matter what your size – it’s a mindset. You need to have the mindset that the more you communicate the better your results are going to be.
Sharon: One common mistake leaders make, early on in a business, is to think: “well, I don’t have the full story yet, so I’ll hold back until I do have it.” And a lot of startups feel they are in this position, right? But in that void of not communicating, people start filling in the gaps themselves – and its usually not with good news.
It’s better to get out there at the outset – and even if you don’t have the full story, say you don’t have the full story, “but this is what I know for now”. And if it changes, let them know. As you know more, let them know.
Catherine: Bottom line, communication is essential to the employee experience: It feeds how people think about you as an employer. It impacts how people engage. When you’re starting up you’re trying to attract talent, and that’s tough in and of itself. So when you get the talent, you want to retain the talent. Communication is a big part of building that experience.
“It’s better to get out there at the outset – and even if you don’t have the full story, say you don’t have the full story, ‘but this is what I know for now’.”
You’re ready to take on that communication focus – what’s the first thing you do to build that into how you operate?
Sharon: Now we’re talking about a big subject (laughs)! There are several best practices.
First you need to align your staff – they should be clear on your vision, your goals, how you are going to achieve them and how they contribute to your success.
People tend to focus on the ‘what’ in communications but probably more important is focusing on the “why” – why are we doing this? Why is it important? Why should you care?
In our view, very strategic level communication should come right from the top, and get reinforced with further-down levels of management. Not all leaders – and I’m thinking at the CEO level – are comfortable with communication. But you know what? It’s part of the job. You have to be the person that communicates. You are the ‘Chief Communications Officer’.
Second, your communication needs clarity. Framing out your key messages: what are the few things you want people to remember? You don’t really want more than five key messages. Your messages should include rationale, the “what’s in it for you/us” message and the call to action.
Now it’s a case of communicating the key messages and having the right people communicate them. And then its a case of remembering that just because you communicated it once, it’s not a done job. You need to keep reinforcing your message, keep tying things back to it, keep people mindful of it. Get a communications rhythm going, so you don’t lose sight of it.
4 Steps for Strategic Employee Communications:
- Focus on the why not the what
- Frame out clear, action-oriented key messages
- Get the right people to communicate them
- Reinforce with a regular rhythm of communications
How can a company diagnose how it’s doing at communicating with employees? What should they be watching out for, or measuring?
Sharon: There are many ways to measure, and it varies from organization to organization.
It could be things like managers reporting back that they are hearing positive or negative feedback, or a lot of people are asking questions (people asking questions means they’re engaging actually, its not a negative). Employee engagement surveys can be seeded with questions to evaluate communication.
Organizations who are really serious about communications can do communications audits – or have them done for them – where their communications efforts are evaluated for effectiveness: what’s working, what’s not working, where are the opportunities you’re missing, that kind of thing.
Catherine: The other way is to talk to your staff: are they getting the information they need? Are they getting it through the right channels? Are they getting too much? Too little? How can things be improved?
We often overlook that our staff are really a great source of information for improving the company – and the employee experience, too.
“We often overlook that our staff are really a great source of information for improving the company…”
How do you communicate tough news or information?
Catherine: All organizations have to do this, at some point.
Be both direct and sensitive. You really need to think before you speak. It takes a lot of thoughtful planning as to how you’ll address the message. Writing it out, speaking it out loud. Getting it to a point where you feel its clear and sensitively framed.
Sometimes people are so uncomfortable delivering tough news that they don’t get to the point, they give you all this preamble and you’re sitting there thinking “Oh my God, this is painful, get to it”. Or they are so vague they leave the audience confused and uncertain about what they’re actually saying.
Sharon: Rip off the band-aid, and then soothe. Because people want to know. If you say: “I’ve got good news and bad news, what do you want to hear first?” People always ask for the bad news first.
Catherine: Yeah, you really need to be up front with bad news. Lead with something like: “There’s no easy way to say this, but…” and then you, as Sharon said, rip off that band-aid.
People will appreciate it.
It’s never comfortable delivering tough news. As a leader, you can’t wait until you feel comfortable – ‘cause you’ll never get there. But you’ll be respected as a straight talker, someone who can be trusted and who delivers the goods.
Just do it, right?
Catherine: Yeah, and brace yourself (laughs)!
How to Communicate Tough News:
- Don’t wait until you feel comfortable (you’ll never get there)
- Think and plan before you deliver the message
- Be direct but sensitive: ‘rip off the band-aid, then soothe’
How can employers better use employees in their recruitment efforts?
Sharon: Your employees – your happy employees, of course (laughs) – are your best ambassadors. So it’s getting back to that employee experience Catherine was talking about. Because your employees are your ambassadors – for good or for bad.
You can be very direct with them: “We’re needing more people like you, do you have any friends that would be interested?” Really engage them in: “Let’s fill up the company with people we know and like.”
Who doesn’t want to work with a bunch of people you know and like? And who doesn’t want to go to work and feel like you’re going to see your friends all day?
Catherine: Stories are really compelling, too.
It’s a lot more than just a job that makes you enthusiastic about where you work. And through stories about actual employees, you can convey elements of your company culture, of what’s good for this particular employee, why it works for them.
We like to listen to real stories from real people. Whether that’s through stories on your website, video testimonials, social channels. So just leverage your enthusiastic employees in as many ways as you can.
Sometimes organizations miss the connection between the inside and the outside. If you’re having that great employee experience, you’re more likely to tell others. Also, you’re more likely to deliver a great customer experience. So it actually helps your external marketing efforts. One drives the other. Brands are driven from the inside out.
“… Your employees are your ambassadors – for good or for bad.”
Does ‘brand’ have a role to play when communicating with staff?
Your brand determines your tone, your attitude, what you say, how you say it. Your brand and your culture, it’s chicken and egg. You don’t know which comes first.
Brand has an aspirational element to it, and you can use that aspirational element to influence and help shift your culture. Communication is a really vital tool in that. But your employer brand really is the general tone or flavour of anything and everything that happens internally.
Catherine: As you’re recruiting, whatever that story is you’re telling potential employees, you better be darn sure you can deliver that promise when they step through the threshold.
You never want it to be that they have this incredible fantasy interview, and then show up and it’s a Dilbert reality. There can’t be a disconnect between the story you tell and what you offer as an employer. That’s part of a consistent brand and consistent employment experience.
“As you’re recruiting, whatever that story is you’re telling potential employees, you better be darn sure you can deliver that promise…”
More savvy from the ladies
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By Christian De Pape, Communications Consultant