A New Model for Employee Communication, Part 11: Practices

 
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 Practices

This is the latest installment in a series of posts exploring a new model of employee communication, one designed to deliver measurable results that demonstrate the impact on the organization in ways that matter to leaders.

Revised Employee Communication Model

 

The series: Part 1: Introduction Part 6: Branding Part 7: Channels Part 2: Overview Part 3: Alignment Part 8: Culture Part 4: Listening Part 9: Vision/Mission Part 5: Consultation Part 10: Values

The four overlapping circles at the center of the model represent the best opportunities for employee communication to affect an organization on a day-to-day basis. Today, we’ll look at practices, the third critical ingredient of a company’s culture.

The culture component of the new model for employee communication

The last two installments in this series addressed Vision/Mission and Values. None of these will be worth a damn if they are not baked into the company’s practices.

In fact, if your organization’s practices don’t reflect the vision, mission, and values that have been posted on walls and touted at town hall meetings, they will be the target of some pretty withering sarcasm and a catalyst for lower employee engagement, a diminished employer brand, and deterioration of the customer experience.

Here’s how business writer John Coleman put it in his Harvard Business Review article, “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture:”

Values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices. If an organization professes, “people are our greatest asset,” it should also be ready to invest in people in visible ways. Wegman’s, for example, heralds values like “caring” and “respect,” promising prospects “a job [they’ll] love.” And it follows through in its company practices, ranked by Fortune as the fifth best company to work for. Similarly, if an organization values “flat” hierarchy, it must encourage more junior team members to dissent in discussions without fear or negative repercussions. And whatever an organization’s values, they must be reinforced in review criteria and promotion policies, and baked into the operating principles of daily life in the firm.

Coleman focuses on people-focused practices, but the notion of instilling purpose and values into practices goes much further.

One definition of “practices” addresses the activities carried out habitually or regularly by an organization, which can include…

  • Executive communication, including town halls and other regular gatherings that put leaders and employees in the same room—If this is already a practice, test it against your vision, purpose, and values. If it’s not something you’re already doing, start. For a lot of reasons, employees need to see their leaders and leaders need face-to-face contact with the people they lead. Remember, town hall meetings are not just another means of pushing information at employees. The concept—originated in the American colonies in the 17th century—was for town leaders and residents to engage in conversation and debate, not for leaders to make presentations. Regular leader email or intranet updates, videos, and other communication should also be part of the mix and always align with vision, purpose, and values.
     
  • Work processes—Business units, production facilities, departments, and teams should ensure the processes they use to get their work done are consistent with vision, purpose, and values. For example, in a company that touts sustainability as a value shouldn’t continue to use a manufacturing process that produces excess waste or contributes to air or water pollution. An audit of processes designed to identify values gaps could lead to change projects employees would embrace enthusiastically. Even the supply chain should be reviewed to ensure you’re not supporting businesses whose practices conflict with the beliefs your company holds dear.
     
  • Functional practices, like IT, Human Resources, Legal, and Facilities can test their processes for interacting with internal customers to make sure they sync up with the company’s beliefs. If the company professes its commitment to a great employee experience, an employee who feels shrugged off or abused after a call to HR or IT will fall through the gap between the promise and the reality. (I will address this in more detail when we get to the third inner circle of the employee communication model, the employee experience).
     
  • Customer practices—What are the habits and deeply ingrained behaviors that govern interactions with the customer? How well do they align reflect vision/purpose/values? One study finds the three top reasons people call out brands on social media are the belief a company has been dishonest, because they have received bad customer service, or because they were treated rudely by a company representative. Allowing these behaviors to continue renders useless vision, purpose, and values statements that portray you as something you’re not.

    Dow employees building a home for Habitat for Humanity

  • As I’ve noted before, an overwhelming number of people believe companies need to commit time, energy, and money to make the world a better place in addition to producing ROI. You should consider how your company fulfills its obligations to the community and the world as a distinct set of practices. Employees at Dow Chemical, for example, have become so engaged with Habitat for Humanity that the company’s Habitat relationship has a dedicated channel in the company’s primary employee communication platform. Does your organization have genuine practices that enrich the local community, social justice, the environment, or other external challenges that make sense for your business, or are you just throwing money at a problem and checking of the corporate social responsibility box?

The Communicator’s Role

Employing the right practices can become routine, which is great. There is also a risk that it becomes humdrum, making it easy to deviate from those practices without anyone knowing. Communicators need to identify individuals and teams whose actions reflect the best of the company’s vision, purpose, and values and recognize them. (You’re producing employee and team profiles anyway, right? You might as well choose your subjects because they represent the best of your organization.) Articles and videos distributed through the company’s regular channels let everyone know the kinds of behaviors that are worthy of recognition. Executives calling out those individuals and teams during town hall meetings or other face-to-face forums breathes life into the idea that leaders truly value that behavior, that they honor achievements consistent with the company’s vision and mission.

Communicators should also play a role in formal company recognition programs. I have long believed that recognition is more about sending a message to the rest of the employee population than it is about giving a plaque to the one employee or team that has earned the honor. When I went to work at Mattel, the president’s award was lucrative for winners but barely noticed by anyone else. Winning individuals and teams were ushered into the president’s office for a brief one-on-one during which he handed over a check for $10,000. A cheap brochure was rushed out. Some employees pinned it to their walls, crossing out the sketches of winners who were laid off during the following year.

I convinced leadership that the program wasn’t accomplishing much, that a successful program would leave every other employee saying, “I want that to be me next year.” We dramatically improved the quality of the communication about the program and the winners. In addition to a check, winning meant attending a special event with their plus-one and all of the members of the C-suite and their plus ones. Photos and videos from the event were shared with the rest of the staff. All of the communication around the program bolstered the idea that winning meant performing work that advanced the company’s vision, purpose, and/or values.

And it worked.

Even less formal, more frequent, lower-level recognition can send important messages about what the company truly values. For example, a Canadian bank implemented an intranet utility that let employees share their favorite customer service stories, then upvote the stories that resonated with them. Those that earned the most upvotes also became ingrained in the company’s storytelling culture.

The communicator’s consultative role can help other teams bake the right elements into their processes and practices. Do you provide support to supervisors to make it easier for them to communicate relevant information to their employees? Do you make services available to managers who need help with communication-related challenges?

Ultimately, if culture is “the way things are done around here,” the company’s practices will define the culture far more than any statements or proclamations. Communication should play an integral part in defining and recognizing those practices.

Leave a comment: How does your employee communication support practices that reflect the company’s vision, purpose, and values? What practices have I missed? Let’s start a conversation.

The graphics for this series were created by Brian O’Mara-Croft.

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