Tuesday, October 04, 2005














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A little more conversation, a little less information
Richard Donkin

          The vast majority of employees in the UK have no idea of their right to ask their employer about its plans for the future, according to new research undertaken by a communications company.
The "right to ask" under the Information and Consultation Directive came in to force in April this year among 14,000 UK companies and other organisations each with more than 150 employees.
But in research among just over 1,000 employees, mostly working in larger companies, fewer than two out of 10 had heard of the directive. Just over one in 10 had heard about it from their employer and an even smaller proportion had been told about it by their trade union, says the study, carried out on behalf of CHA, a public relations and communications company.
When the directive was announced in 2002 the regulations were welcomed by trade unions as an opportunity for employees to find out about future plans that might affect their jobs. Supporters of the directive had complained about the tendency among many companies to keep workforces in the dark about redundancy plans often until job losses were announced to the market.
Yet only 13 per cent of those surveyed were aware that the directive had given them the right to ask their employer about the future of their organisation. The research would suggest that both employers and trade unions have done too little to tell their staff and membership about the changes.
But if employees know too little about their rights they seem to be getting all kinds of other corporate information. The survey found that employers were increasing the information they handed to staff. Nearly two thirds of those questioned said they had received more information this year than last. But is this the stuff that people need or want to know? Many of those surveyed complained that much of the information they were getting was confusing, full of jargon and irrelevant.
This begs the question: are companies going over the top in their attempts to communicate? Are they telling people the right things? The feedback collected by CHA would suggest that it is not so much the amount or type of information passed to employees that matters most, but the way that people hear the news.
The three things that people most want to hear from their companies, according to the research, are plans for the future, the specific contribution the employee is expected to make in achieving these plans and the extent to which they, as individuals, will benefit as a result.
One of the most telling findings of the research is the way that people like to hear company news. Common corporate policies of posting communications on the intranet, emails or in newsletters, are appreciated far less than face to face encounters with managers or the chief executive.
The "Dear colleague" email beloved of so many chief executives goes down less well with staff than a personal appearance on the office floor. Team meetings, visits from leaders and employee conferences -- the sort of circumstances where people are speaking and listening to each other directly -- were all rated as significant sources of employee motivation.
"Bombarding employees with too much information from too many sources is not the answer," says Colette Hill, chief executive of CHA. "Huge sums of money are invested in hightech initiatives that lead to mixed messages and confusion where what is needed is clarity of purpose," she says.
Clarity with words matters also. As Peter Drucker put it in his book The Practice of Management "managers have to learn to know language, to understand what words are and what they mean". He also made the point that "the skill needed for motivating and communicating ... is primarily social". Sadly, there are too few opportunities to practise social skills in offices characterised by screen-bound staff opting to conduct their conversations on a keyboard.
Another common failing in corporate communication is to assume that it all goes one way, from management to employees. Even companies that seek out employee concerns in attitude surveys do not always understand the need to respond.
"Carry out employee surveys at your peril; you raise expectations that something will happen. When nothing does, employees know you have something to hide, even if this is not actually the case," writes Mike Johnson, a communications specialist in his book, Winning the People Wars.
The Royal Bank of Scotland has addressed this potential failing by insisting that all issues raised in staff surveys are answered and that sensible suggestions are dealt with by the relevant managers. "You told us this, we are doing this in response," is the RBS approach.
Cadbury Schweppes uses its Corporate and Social Responsibility report, among various approaches, to deliver messages to staff, analysts and investors about future plans. The 2004 report, for example, made it clear that the company's medium term goal was to reduce the number of its factories by 20 per cent and employee numbers by 10 per cent. The same section promised open consultation within the closure programme.
In its last survey of employees the company found that the vast majority -- 93 per cent -- knew what was expected of them in their jobs. But it also uncovered a need to improve direct management involvement in development since more than a quarter of employees complained that they were not receiving the feedback they needed to help them improve their work.
Less than half the employees questioned in the CHA research thought their companies communicated well. Most thought their companies were communicating poorly. But people did not want more newsletters. Most said that company news once a month was enough and nearly two-thirds thought a quarterly bulletin would suffice.
The issue, therefore, is not one of frequency but of the quality of information and the quality of delivery. Perhaps more companies should ask themselves why people are often more trusting of gossip they hear at the water cooler than anything they read on the intranet.
There is an intimacy about those furtive conversations in office corners that cannot be replicated in formal top-down messages. Companies never speculate in their newsletters but speculation is endless within the employee rumour mill.
John Lewis, the retailer, captures some of these conversations in its staff magazine that carries a healthy letters section where people tend to make robust points about the company. But John Lewis, a company that is held in trust on behalf of its employees, has an ownership structure that allows employees to believe, psychologically at least, that they have some say in the business. It is difficult to replicate that atmosphere in a business that has allowed senior executive pay to soar in to the corporate stratosphere. Conversations work best between equals.
Under syndication arrangement
with FE


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