Authored Article

NEW ORLEANS—Getting employees' attention. Speaking too legalistically. Reaching remote workers or those without access to email. Cascading messaging all the way through the organization.

These are just a few of the communication problems identified by those attending the June 29, 2009 concurrent session "Communicate Despite the Obstacles: Engage Employees with Effective (and Efficient) Communication" held here in conjunction with the SHRM Annual Conference.

"When you have information that people care about, they listen," said presenter Alison Davis, CEO of Glen Rock, N.J.-based Davis & Co. "When you don't, they won't."

Citing a 2009 MetLife study of employee benefit trends, Davis said employees most care about salaries and wages, health benefits, retirement benefits, advancement opportunities, and corporate culture. But only one-third of responding employers and approximately 36 percent of employee respondents strongly believe that their companies' communications about these areas educate employees effectively. They say these communications are usually too jargon-y and confusing and don't clarify what the information really means to them.

"Employees also don't believe their time is being valued when they get so much nonessential communication."

Employee-focused communication

But there are steps human resource professionals can take to get the attention of and engage employees and encourage them to take action. During the session, Davis helped participants work through several examples of bad communications, noting what made them so. And she advised using these six strategies to create effective, compelling employee communications:

Communicate less. Companies need to communicate right when employees need to know information and communicate only what needs to be known, said Davis. The first sentence of any communication with employees should address the following:

  • How the subject affects them.
  • What employees need to do differently.
  • Where employees can go to take action or get help.

"This is tricky because employees don't want information too early before the time they need to use it, but they don't want surprises, either. If you answer these things, you'll go a long way toward improving the effectiveness of your communications."

(Really) know your employees. Demographics provide insights to who your audience really is. "Often, the people who have to approve our messages don't communicate the way employees want to be communicated with." So, it's important to assess employee groups' needs and preferences [and] to provide information to these groups in the format they want to access it within the time frame they will most need it, she said.

Convey a single concept. "What is the one thing they need to know or do? Stick to that single message."

Make access easy. "Make sure our communications help people get to where they need to go with the help of their preferred printed or online tools."

Be visual. Unfortunately, people don't read, Davis said, so long textual documents full of details aren't effective. "Instead, use visuals that help employees scan documents and skim text. You'll be much more likely to get their attention."

Stay short and sweet. Enough said.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is a manager/editor for SHRM Online.