Marketing Matters Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002
Downsizing, mergers, outsourcing and other recent business trends have created a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty throughout the workplace. A number of recent studies have revealed that workers today are increasingly disenchanted with their current jobs. One of the chief reasons: Facing an uncertain future, they feel more like lambs being sacrificed at the shareholders' alter than they do valued members of a team.

Here's a solution for companies looking to attract and retain valuable employees-improved employer-worker communications. Effective employee communications can assist in increasing employee productivity, but it can also help to initiate and execute behavioral-change strategies for an entire workforce.

As the U.S. workplace continues its dynamic changes, it's only natural for workers to feel apprehensive. In most companies, angst is created by the great unknown. Not knowing or fully understanding the consequences of a company's actions-whether unplanned overtime requirements, a plant expansion or imminent layoffs - can have a detrimental effect on employee morale, which often leads to productivity problems.

According to Roger D'Aprix, author of Communicating for Change: Connecting the Workplace with the Marketplace, traditionally, "capital, and what it could buy, has always been the precious asset. But in the current information economy, smart people are the precious asset."

By engaging in effective, two-way communications, D'Aprix says, companies can better harness employees' skills and intelligence-and win back their hard work and dedication.

What to say

Communicating with employees extends beyond breaking bad news, offering details of the company 401(k) plan or announcing the company picnic. It extends throughout the very fabric of your business. And it's a byproduct of your management style.

Don't just tell employees what's changing. Tell them why. Educate them in your business, and give them business reasons for the changes. They'll understand. Really. If a change is complicated to understand, make the extra effort. After all, employees will, in many cases, be instrumental in making the desired change a success. Not informing them fully risks potential failure.

An often-used example of a company with superior employee communications is Southwest Airlines. From the pilots to the baggage handlers, employees understand the company's overall goals and expectations. The Golden Rule is that employees are allowed to do whatever is reasonable to satisfy customers. Management guru Tom Peters once said in the book NUTS! (a book about Southwest Airlines) that Southwest "is smart enough to recognize that their most valuable assets are their people and the culture they create. Southwest never forgets it's in the people business-the company just happens to operate an airline."

Regardless of whether you run an airline, a specialty metals shop or a small retail store, the lesson is that employees are on the front lines of customer perception. From the front-desk receptionist to the part-timer who sweeps the shop floor, all of your employees have the potential for customer contact. Your workers should be aware of new product and service introductions and new company policies. Imagine your embarrassment when a longtime customer asks one of your workers about a new service or product that you're offering-and the response is a shrug or a blank stare. It simply makes sense to keep employees informed and to help them become more in touch with the company's overall goals.

How to say it

While it's important to know what you're saying to employees, how you say it can take several forms. Very large companies may use e-mail, slick color magazines and video conferencing to get their messages out. Smaller companies, however, have a key advantage over larger companies. Their communications can take much more intimate forms, such as face-to-face group meetings, brown-bag lunches and open houses for employees and their families. Other old standbys include personal letters, bulletin-board notes and recognition ceremonies. Also, encourage employees to become more familiar with your company by reading your product literature and other marketing materials.

Whether it's good news or bad, after you've reached a decision to spread the word, you should tell your employees first. Not only will this build trust with employees, but you'll also be able to put an end to any rumors before they start.

Jeff Krakoff is president of Krakoff Communications Inc., a Pittsburgh-based marketing communications consulting firm. Comments and questions can be sent via e-mail to