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Employee engagement and communications are core cultural assets

By Tim Young & Michael Kenneth

Transitions can be tough for employees. But they don’t have to be. Whether it’s an outright sale, a generational ownership transfer or creation of an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), there are definitive steps you can take to ease employee angst during what will be a critical time for business performance.

We call this the Care and Feeding of Employees. What’s the most thing you can feed them? Honest information. Here are some considerations for maintaining employee engagement during that critical time for you … and them.

When announcing the transition, default to face-to-face communication

Written communications are important and should provide a baseline of information and messaging about what’s happening and why. But an employee letter is a one-way street that doesn’t provide for employees’ responses or questions.

Owners/senior managers are much more credible when they supplement written communication by making themselves available to employees face-to-face (in-person preferred or teleconference if necessary).

Words often matter less than sensory queues such as voice tone, facial expression and body language. A relaxed and confident manager willing to actively engage with employees goes a long way in establishing credibility for him/herself and the messaging—significantly more so than written communications alone.

Remember…everything communicates, the stated and the unstated. And you’re sending strong messages—sometimes even screaming them—when you choose not to communicate.

It’s about the why not the what

The goal of communicating with employees is to earn their engagement. Otherwise, why do it?

Enlightened employers engage their employees in the business, its strategies, its successes, as well as its failures. Engaged employees understand why the company is doing what it’s doing, not just what it does. They’re active, vested participants in its success who are doing their level best to serve their customers—external and internal—to the very best of their ability based on an inclusive, I’ve got a stake in this too mind-set.

Employee engagement is the single most important contributor to a positive, vibrant corporate culture. And culture beats strategy. Every day. All day long.

 Acknowledge and address the me issues

Employees will seek to understand how the transaction affects them personally, which leads to the me questions:

Do I still have a job?

Is my job changing?

Are my pay or benefits changing?

Will I have the same boss?

Any communication should anticipate, acknowledge and respond to these and other me questions.

Today’s employees are savvy. It’s no secret that mergers create efficiencies, redundancies, unnecessary duplication and other corporate-speak proxies for lay-offs and expense reduction. Communications should respect their intelligence—and potential fears—and provide a credible rationale for any changes.

Terse messages such as These are business decisions … and It’s business as usual … are dismissive, not reassuring. Communicate in a respectful tone and manner, and explain why the transaction makes sense, disclosing as much as possible.

Above all, be honest – even if the truth is painful. People can handle truth, not ambiguity.

Acknowledge that the grapevine will be the primary communications channel

You can’t control the grapevine (nor do you want to). But you can influence it.

Employees will look to their direct managers—generally middle management (supervisor, manager and director levels)—rather than senior management for confirmation and reassurance. An effective way to influence the grapevine is by giving your people managers the latitude and resources to respond to their employees’ questions and concerns.

The middle management team is both an audience and a critical nexus for cascading information and messaging throughout the organization. These are the people with the day-to-day relationships that get the work done and keep customers happy. Demonstrate your trust by engaging them as an integral part of the communications strategy.

Why? Because these grapevine reactions are preferable:

My boss knows a lot about it. She seems really upbeat … I trust her …

My boss said to let him know if I have any more questions …

To these:

My boss told me to keep my head down and just keep working …

My boss said she’s just as much in the dark as we are. Something’s up …

My boss doesn’t know if there’ll be any layoffs. You know what that means …

This team can be assembled prior to the general announcement to hear the news, review the materials and be coached on delivering the messages. HR often plays an important role in this process. The added benefit is that these managers will take pride in being considered important shepherds of the news and have vested involvement in the communication process.

Facts and optics—look through the employee lens

There’s what’s being said, there’s how it’s being said and then there’s the way it looks. This is where facts can compromise messaging.

For example, two companies may combine in a merger of equals. Yet, Company A has $100 million in revenue with 1,000 employees and Company B has $50 million in revenue and 600 employees. Moreover, the Company A CEO has been named CEO of the combined organization and the CEO of Company B is named EVP.

While messaging may emphasize equal footing, the facts suggest otherwise, and employees of Company B may feel as though they’ve been acquired or are the perceived losers in the transaction.

Then, consider that the market for qualified employees is extremely tight, which means that good employees have choices. Any ambiguity—especially when amplified by inconsistent messaging and optics—may prompt employees to run toward new opportunities with competitors urging them over.

Begin by creating messages that align with the facts.

Maintaining employee engagement during a transition is critical. But don’t forget that engagement begins when an employee first walks through the door. If employee engagement and communication are a core part of your culture, you’ll be miles ahead when it comes to a transition.


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