A New Model for Employee Communication: Overview

Shel Holtz's picture



Note: I have revised the model since I posted the first installment of this series last week. I am a firm believer in measurement but did not have a visual element symbolizing measurement because I believed it had to occur in each component of the model. Enough people asked, though—notably Angela Sinickas and Katie Paine, two of the world’s premier communication measurement thought leaders—that I decided to add it. Thanks again to Brian O’Mara-Croft for handling the alteration to the graphic so deftly and quickly. Here’s the complete revised model:

Revised Employee Communication Model

The series: Part 1: Introduction

As I pointed out in the introduction to this series, employee communications as an independent function is at risk. Given the particular combination of skills and the understanding of models and processes inherent to employee communications, that would be a shame. Roger D’Aprix—one of the early employee communication innovators—defines employees as “informed insiders,” which qualifies them as more than just another stakeholder audience. Those working in employee communications need to take steps to ensure both the viability of the function and the focus on employees that cannot be executed as well by any other business function.

This new model for employee communications, which I unveiled at the IABC World Conference earlier this month, is designed to accomplish three overarching goals:

  1. Employ skills unique to employee communications that add value across the entire organization
  2. Deliver measurable results that matter to the organization’s leadership
  3. Position employee communications as an indispensable management function

In the coming weeks, I will dive into each of the model’s components, which will represent (if I’m counting right) 24 posts. Today, I’ll start with a concise overview of the entire model.

All those arrows

two-way communication

“Employee communication is two-way” has become such a mantra that we spout it without much thought to what it means. In my early days as an employee communicator, letters to the editor sufficed. Today, in far too many employee communication departments, adding comment functionality to articles and a Q&A session at town hall meetings is as far as it goes.

While there is no shortage of definitions for the word “communication,” the one we should embrace is “the exchanging of information or news.” The very notion of communication is two-way. One-way communication is not communication at all.

One-way communication is really just messaging.

All those arrows convey the idea that dialogue is inherent in communication.

News and context

News and context

The content that employee communication departments produce is central to the function. Even though the model expands the communicator’s role to include consultation and facilitation of employee-to-employee communication throughout the enterprise, it remains vital that the department delivers news and information as the unified, central voice of the organization.

Imagine a department that only works with leaders and others to help them communicate. Where is the central repository of content an employee can review to remind herself of the official company position on an issue? Should she watch the CEO’s weekly videos (which don’t cover everything of importance to employees)? Search each leader’s Yammer posts? And what if one leader’s perception doesn’t square up with another’s?

It is also incumbent on the department to find the great employee stories that bring intangible concepts to life, that recognize employees whose actions reflect the behaviors leader want to see across the entire company. Employee communications should help employees make sense out of data (telling stories with numbers) and produce “explainers” that simplify complex subjects.

Corporate journalism is integral to employee communications. The fact that it’s no longer the department’s sole activity does not mean it should be abandoned altogether. Communication-produced content also provides context, explaining the “why” behind the “what.” Solid reporting also makes it easier for business unit leaders and managers to translate the message locally, helping employees explain what the company’s news means to them and how it will affect their work.

The outer ring

Outer Ring

The five segments of the outer ring comprise the work that employee communications puts into all of its activities, regardless of the objectives for any reporting, initiative, or other communication.

  • Alignment—Alignment can refer to a lot of things, but mainly it’s working to ensure employees are able to align their day-to-day work with the company’s strategy, goals, and business plan. Whatever you’re communicating, you should ask, “How can this help the employees consuming it make good work decisions?” The need to be relevant—sometimes on an individual level—is the heart of alignment. If an employee sees a communication and wonders, “What does this have to do with me?” we have failed.
  • Listening—Listening is not measurement, although analytics and metrics definitely apply. Measurement assesses the effectiveness of communication: Did you move the needle? Listening is knowing what employees are talking about, what’s on their minds. Marketers understand monitoring; they invest huge sums in paying attention to customers’ conversations, questions, challenges, problems, and issues. They use that input to tweak existing communications and identify opportunities for new interactions and new campaigns. Some companies have started paying attention to Google Trends to craft real-time communication that synchs up with what people are talking about right now. Employee communicators need to adopt monitoring techniques if we are going to understand the environment about which we’re counseling leaders and into which we’re distributing content.
  • Consultation—Everybody communicates. (That’s one reason communications departments sometimes get little respect; leaders wonder if a department is required to do something everybody does.) Not everybody does it well, though, and the fact that someone may be a good interpersonal communicator does not automatically make him a good organizational communicator. Historically (as my friend Dean Landeche once put it), communicators have been hired guns, brought in to clean up a mess. Today, we need to be at leadership’s side, advising on the communication dimensions of decisions and actions, and helping leaders be as effective as possible in their official communication activities.
  • Branding—When people say they wish they worked for Google, Genentech, Intuit, Salesforce, or Workday (all among the 20 best places to work, according to Fortune), they are reacting to the employer brand, the organization’s reputation as an employer and its value proposition to its employees. Externally, the brand is what people think and/or feel when they hear your company name (or that of a product or service). It is the cumulative impact of every interaction and experience someone has had with the company/product/service. (Brand also refers to the trademarks, logos, and other symbols, but think about what Uber’s brand is today; it goes well beyond the logo!). Everything we communicate, formally and informally, must reinforce the brand we want to be.
  • Channels—The idea that we can communicate with employees through a single, dominant channel—whether it’s a print publication or an intranet—is no longer tenable. We must become channel experts, able to plan content for distribution in its most appropriate form—and start and participate in conversations—in the various channels employees use. We have to be where they are; they won’t come to us.

The inner circles

Inner Circles

The four overlapping circles at the heart of the model provide employee communicators with focus. Just about anything you instinctively think is a good communication probably fits in one of these circles, which matter because they matter to leadership. The model is designed to connect the dots between these four categories and provide a framework for constructing a communication strategy.

  • Culture—There’s an old saying originated by the management guru, Peter Drucker (who also used it as the title of one of his many books): Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the way things are done around here. It’s the stew of beliefs and behaviors that drive how leaders and staff interact and handle issues. It’s the embodiment of the company’s shared values, attitudes, and standards. Within a culture, strategy either thrives or dies a slow, painful death. A variety of factors influence culture, but the primary characteristics include the following:
    • Vision—Why does the company exist? Who does it serve? Where is it headed? Employees should be able to close their eyes and see what the company (and their place in it) looks like if the vision is achieved. In a great culture, employees want to help the company achieve its vision. (My favorite vision statement, by the way, dates back to May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress his vision of sending an American to the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade.)
    • Values—What does the organization stand for? A company’s values guide the behaviors and mindsets of its leaders and employees. They cover how employees treat each other, how they treat customers, what the company believes in (diversity, for example, or environmental stewardship, or adherence to Biblical teachings), and the professional standards employees and leaders are expected to uphold. (Values also play a large part in engagement. See “Organizational Integrity” for more information.)
    • Practices—How does the company activate its values in the practices and procedures that consume employees’ time every day? Employees would be excused for getting cynical if their values talk about environmental stewardship but the supply chain is riddled with products from suppliers who are destroying the rainforest or churning carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “Practices” covers everything from how we conduct meetings to how departments interact with each other. If, for example, there are no practices that encourage engineers to listen to customer service about the complaints they’re hearing, the company’s practices don’t support a positive culture.
    • People—Employees have to strive toward the vision, embrace the values, and implement the practices that contribute to the culture. Hiring the right people (with effective recruitment practices) and retaining them (by treating them right) is thus an equally important cultural component. More than great bosses, prospective employees are looking to work in great cultures. One study found that applicants would work for 7% less to take a job in a company with the kind of culture in which they want to work.
    • Place—The physical environment in which employees spend most of their waking weekday hours is often overlooked as a foundation of culture. Where facilities are located is important, as is the workplace itself, which can be inspiring, support collaboration, and reflect the geographic location and local culture (among other things). One example: When I worked for Allergan, a new R&D building was planned and the chief scientist insisted that all the walls be made out of dry erase boards so any researchers encountering one another in the hallway could begin diagramming then and there.
  • Engagement—Employees are engaged when they look forward to going to work and helping the company succeed. They are inclined to give discretionary effort. Companies with large populations of engaged employees enjoy greater growth, higher profitability, and better productivity than competitors with fewer engaged employees. There is less turnover and it’s easier to attract the best new employees; that is, engaged employees help define the employer brand. Absenteeism is lower, too. According to Engage for Success, a UK organization committed to raising engagement in British businesses, there are four enablers of engagement:

    • Strategic narrative—Every company has a history and a heritage that helps explain where the company is and where it’s going. The narrative helps employees see the big picture and where they fit in it. It should be adaptable to business units and locations, but always consistent with the primary narrative, which employees should see as their story.
    • Engaging managers—I can’t say it any better than Engage for Success does: “Engaging managers focus on their people and give them scope, treat them as individuals, and coach and stretch them.”
    • Employee voice—Organizations that see their staffs as the solution to its problems, to be involved and invited to contribute, give their employees a voice. This isn’t about providing a forum for every employee, but rather viewing employees collectively as worth listening to and providing the channels for employees to be heard and for their input to be considered, especially when they’re talking about decisions that affect them.
    • Organizational integrity—Simply stated, leaders must walk the values talk. When the company signals the importance of a set of values but the leaders behave in ways that contradict those values, engagement crumbles. Wells Fargo’s values sound fine, like this one: “We value what’s right for our customers in everything we do.” When employees were pressured into setting up accounts for customers without their knowledge, however, that value statement became a subject of derision and cast a light on a significant say-do gap.
  • Employee Experience—Increasingly, we are seeing job titles that include the employee experience, such as “Senior Manager, Customer & Employee Experience Communications,” and “Sr. Manager, Employee Experience and Communications.” The employee experience (EX)—the total impact of employees’ many interactions with the company (from supervisors and leadership to co-workers and the environment, from the benefits they receive to how HR treats them when they call with a benefits problem)—is the key factor in the employer brand; it also influences culture and engagement, and affects the way employees engage with customers. Critical elements of EX include the following:

    • The employee journey—With parallels to the customer journey, the employee journey is far more detailed. After all, employees “touch” the company every day in multiple ways. Elements of the customer journey (which will be different in every company and for every employee) include recruiting, on-boarding, performance evaluations, recognition experiences, and retirement. In many respects, relevance in communication comes from knowing where in her journey an employee is when you’re communicating with her.
    • Daily interactions—How did that call to the IT help desk go? Did the boss reject your request for vacation? Did that pointless meeting eat into your day and keep you from completing a task? Every interaction during the workday affects how you feel about the company.
    • Work-Life Balance—While this is a generalization, it is bacially true that employees of different generations have entirely different perspectives on work-life balance. Boomers, for example, want to go home when they workday is over, while Millennials want to be able to work from home and bring their pets to the office. Regardless of what work-life balance means to each employee, how seriously the company takes it affects the employee experience. (During Jim Shaffer’s session at the IABC conference, somebody in the audience said her CEO had called her once at 11 p.m. to talk about work-life balance!)
    • Job satisfaction—Often erroneously used as a synonym for engagement, job satisfaction covers a host of tangible aspects of work, including wellness programs, fair pay, learning and career development, and the like.
  • The customer experience—In most companies, only a handful of employees actually engage directly with customers, yet every employee is expected to meet customer expectations. Leaders can be obsessive about the customer experience (CX), but most employees (e.g., those in accounts payable, those on the factory floor, admins in marketing, lawyers, and facilities staff) have no clue what it is. Most company vision statements focus on customers. Ikea, for example, wants to create a better everyday life for people. How can employees possibly serve the customer if they don’t know the customer and his expectations, what he loves and hates about doing business with the company? Employee communicators must create a connection between employees and customers.

    • The customer journey—Like the employee experience, CX varies from industry to industry, marketplace to marketplace, company to company, and customer to customer. The basic elements, though, are encapsulated in the tired old marketing funnel: They become aware of the company, they consider doing business with it, they make a decision to do business, they buy, use the product or service, hassle with tech and customer support, decide whether or not to do more business with the company, and if you’re lucky, they become ambassadors, helping drive new business on your behalf. Most companies chart the customer journey in far more detail, yet most employees have no idea what that path is, no less where they have an effect on it.
    • Touchpoints—At what points does the customer actually contact the company? In an ad? Through the company’s community involvement? In a store? On a website? On the phone? Through emails? Employees should know how they influence touchpoints.
    • Ecosystems—Companies are often structured to help customers achieve their goals or solve their problems. Ecosystems include not just the company itself, but influencer networks, partnerships, alliances, and access to tools and resources. It’s likely you have employees who don’t even know they’re part of a customer ecosystem.

Communication inputs

Finally, there are inputs to communication that communicators need to consider as elements of each of the four key categories:


  • Advocacy and commitment—Communication should ultimately inspire employees to commit themselves to the organization, to make an emotional investment in the community of employees to which they belong and with whom they strive to help the company succeed based on shared values, job satisfaction, and the host of other criteria we’ve explored in this post. Ultimately, some employees rise to the level of ambassadors, advocating on behalf of the organization, especially during its difficult times. These are the employees who volunteer to join the growing number of formal ambassador programs (often managed by employee communication departments).

  • Crisis and change—I group crisis and change together because they share a couple of important characteristics: They produce anxiety in employees, they are massive distractions from daily work routines, and they require special, dedicated communication. How a company deals with crisis and change are reflections of culture that often are at odds with its stated values. How they’re addressed can have a considerable impact on employees’ levels of engagement. Part of a complete communications strategy ensures employees are never surprised by change and are prepared for crises.



  • As I noted at the beginning of this post, I have added measurement as a visible part of the model. It crossed the outer ring and the inner circles for a reason: You won’t know if you’re succeeding unless you measure the impact of your efforts on each of the model’s segments.

    I know the Institute for Public Relations is working on a set of employee communication measurement standards, an early draft of which covers outtakes (whether employees received, paid attention to, comprehended, or retailed particular messages), outcomes (evidence of changes to or reinforcement of opinions, attitudes, or behaviors), and organizational impact (if and how employee communication has influenced organizational performance). It’s a solid framework (though I have a few issues with it) that can be applied to this model, as long as it’s applied to each component (that is, for example, what were the outtakes, outcomes, and organizational impact of your efforts to communicate the company values?). I’m planning to talk to three employee communication measurement thought leaders—Katie Paine, Angela Sinickas, and Ryan Williams—about the standards on an upcoming episode of my podcast, “FIR Interviews.” I expect what I learn from them will inform the measurement post in this series.

    Next up…

    The next post in this series will dive into the first segment of the outer ring, alignment. Until then, I hope the conversation the first post inspired will continue.

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