Effective communication has always been something successful businesses at least acknowledged as a priority, but COVID-19 and its aftermath has revealed just how critical it is now and will be as we work toward reopening businesses safely. How transparently a company’s C-suite, HR leaders, and managers communicate with employees – even about the toughest topics – during this time and moving forward speaks to their values and culture and can reinforce or undermine the organization’s reputation. In his book WorkInspired, Kronos and Ultimate Software CEO Aron Ain says, “It’s easy to communicate honestly when business is going well, much harder when it’s not.”

As HR folks, our first impulse is usually to help employees feel secure and engaged through communication. But what about those for whom this instinct might not be as strong? The reality is many organizations’ leaders may be tempted to avoid communicating hard truths with their employees or put it off all together. There’s good news too, though – HR can be instrumental in helping other leaders be transparent by summing up what we’ve all learned as we’ve navigated this pandemic. Here’s what to review to convince them.

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1. Reinforce the employee point of view

Help your other teammates in executive or managerial positions get inside the heads of employees. In HR we spend a ton more time just talking to employees because of our general responsibilities and we can share the insights we gain through those experiences. Here are some key pieces of employee thinking to pass on to your fellow leaders:

Employees want to know what's going on

Staying silent and saying nothing is not the answer. Address the elephant in the room. Keep your team and employees in the loop because if you don’t, they will have a feeling of uncertainty and this will impact their engagement and how they feel about the company. Addressing these types of concerns often will keep them from guessing and asking themselves and each other what’s going on. Being direct will also curb the spreading of gossip and rumors, which can foster a toxic culture.

During times like the current pandemic, recommend that leaders have a regular cadence of communication with their teams and employees. For the most part, communication should be at a minimum on a weekly basis. The cadence should give the company enough time to address anything that happened during the prior week and plan for the upcoming week. Consistency is important too – for example, communicating on the same day every week can help address any communication challenges and ensure employees know a message is coming.

Employees want to know how you can help

Employees want leadership to tell them clearly what they’re doing to help and what resources are available. Communicate the benefits you provide to support their well-being, like Employee Assistance Programs, Wellness Programs, and free resources that are out there to aid them in their situation. Make sure to think about what’s relevant to different kinds of employees.

For instance, for employees with children, are there free websites that read books to kids or help out with other activities? Also, what changes are happening to work expectations around employees who may need some schedule flexibility?  Are there new safety precautions that affect onsite employees, remote employees, or both?

Employees want to know what the future holds

Remind other leaders that it’s okay to let employees know what’s going on in the business even if the picture isn’t exactly rosy. Employees understand the times we're in and will appreciate open and honest communication above all. There’s little point in overcommunicating with employees and other stakeholders if you aren’t prepared to communicate truthfully and transparently.

Now is the time to lead with vulnerability. Even if you don’t have all the answers right away, communicate what steps you’re taking as you decide how to move forward. As an example, you might need to cut non-essential expenditures, and by communicating that with employees up front your leaders will ensure they understand the direction of the business and why cuts are being made. Or you might need to develop additional revenue streams by doing things like reskilling employees, and communicating that is a great way to obtain ideas from them as to who might be best suited for these kinds of efforts. They may also surprise you and come up with alternative ideas you haven’t even considered.

2. Communication processes are paramount

HR can be a big help in getting other leaders over the hump into a steady stream of employee communications by providing clear-cut processes to follow. Lay out and agree on some ground rules with everyone, and make sure to prioritize the following:

Communication processes need to be frequent

As mentioned briefly above there needs to be a high frequency to communication with employees. Set guidelines for how often each of your key leaders at different levels will communicate with them. If communication is infrequent or sporadic, employees will feel forgotten and left to wonder what’s going on, and may even start experiencing burnout.

Communication processes should be candid

Candid communication can still show you care for employees. Communication that is candid provides the truth without sugarcoating it. Impress upon leadership that employees want to know the truth to the best of your ability to deliver it, and set tone and content standards for different types of communications so they’re easier to build out.

Communication processes need to be two-way

The impulse with many corporate communications is to just send an email, but these messages are only one-way or at least seem that way to employees. To help leaders make email feel two-way or like a legitimate path for employees to start a dialog, HR should encourage them to ask recipients for feedback. Also, think about other avenues like pulse surveys so employees have the opportunity to give their perspective. This will allow leaders to have better knowledge of where employees stand during times of disruption, which helps further refine communication processes and next steps.

3. Leadership skills are a must for great communication

Let’s think about it – who typically is in charge of development paths for leadership at an organization? That’s right, HR plays a huge role here too. Now is the time to remind leaders about the principles they’ve learned as they’ve grown into their positions and help them practice those. This could take the form of something like a code of conduct during a crisis. Lay out guidelines like these:

Be open and honest

As I’ve already hammered home, communication above all needs to be truthful and transparent, and this should be a guiding principle HR reinforces with organizational leaders. It’s not always easy for companies to communicate this way, but it goes a long way with employees and builds the trust and respect required for a great employee experience that differentiates your company culture as a whole among competitors. This starts from the top, so remind leadership teams that they have a chance even in tough situations to ensure employee retention and boost productivity by giving employees faith in their words.

Show empathy

Empathy allows leaders to show they understand where others are coming from and that they understand their situations. It provides employees with the feelings that leaders care for them and value their input. During this time, empathy can be as simple as acknowledging how tough and unpredictable this situation is for everyone involved.

As an example, early on in the pandemic our CEO released an open letter on our website that showed his recognition of what both we as employees were going through and what our customers were experiencing and clearly laid out how we’d provide support through the current disruptions. This kind of standard setting goes a long way.

Educate

Provide employees with the information that you have. Let them know what’s gone into your thinking and decision making. Even when leaders are unable to share all of the information that they have, it’s still important to set the expectation with employees that messages will be relayed as soon as they can be. Teaching employees about how different situations are affecting your company and how policies are developed will give them confidence in your organization’s transparency and help them feel that your approach is logical and well-grounded.

Conclusion: HR is the connector between leadership and employees

HR can be the front line for communication not just with employees, but also with a company’s C-suite, directors, and managers to in turn help them communicate hard truths more effectively and build stronger relationships with employees moving forward. If your company hasn’t been implementing the lessons above, there’s no better time than now to start. Your leaders can still build trust with your employees; it’s never too late.

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Published: Friday, May 22, 2020