Honesty the best policy for staff communications

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The year ahead will be one of the most uncertain for New Zealand businesses. The world continues to grapple with the impacts of Covid-19 and many directors will be wondering how their businesses can survive the economic slowdown and the uncertainty that changes in Government Covid-19 Alert Level restrictions can bring.

While some of us are getting by okay, others are barely holding on. Many workers fear losing their jobs and anxiety levels will be high in many workplaces.

Mortgage payments will be top of mind for many of them, as they question how they will support their families if their job disappears. At a time like this, it is more important than ever for managers to engage effectively with staff and contractors.

Do it right and you can keep motivation levels high and productivity strong. Get it wrong and you can expect a staff apathy and a growing number jumping ship.

There are few things more damaging to trust than a staff member hearing about a major change in their own business from a client who has been informed first, or even worse – reading it in the local newspaper.

Keep the information flowing

When times are tough some business owners and managers go into their shell. It’s no fun sharing a difficult message with staff and some people tend to react by saying little, or nothing at all.

This is a big mistake. Just because you’re silent doesn’t mean staff will be, and more often than not speculation and rumour are worse than the truth.

Informing staff shows you care and helps to build trust. It allows you to share the steps you are taking to overcome the challenges the business faces and demonstrates to staff that there won’t be any surprises. Things may not turn out perfectly, but you’re all in it together and they will know where they stand throughout the process.

Keeping staff informed and engaged is also critical for team morale and culture. If everyone knows where you are planning to take the business, and what the strategy is to get through the hard times, they are more likely to work together and put their energy into the right areas.

Much more than a courtesy, good communication with staff can provide productivity and retention bonuses for your business.

Tell staff first

Sometimes we are so eager to please our clients or to tell our story in the media that we forget to keep staff in the loop.

This can be true for good news – such as announcing the launch of a new innovation – or bad, such as the closure of a regional office. It’s good practice to tell staff first, before announcing anything more widely.

This can take the form of a briefing their managers, or even just a heads-up email before a communication to people outside your organisation is sent out.

After all, there are few things more damaging to trust than a staff member hearing about a major change in their own business from a client who has been informed first, or even worse – reading it in the local newspaper.

Be up front

Over-spinning a message is another common mistake some businesses make when communicating neutral or bad news with staff.

This may involve over emphasising the positive while avoiding any mention of the elephant in the room, or overusing buzzwords and business jargon such as “streamlining the business” or “right-sizing our teams” to communicate a restructure or impending job losses.

It’s absolutely true that you should think carefully about what you communicate, the tone of your message, and how it’s delivered. But give your staff some credit and realise many of them will see through the spin.

Honesty and up-front communication, with compassion, will be much better received than a message that beats around the bush or avoids an issue entirely.

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James Heffield
James Heffield
Director of Bay of Plenty marketing and public relations consultancy Last Word. To find out more visit www.lastwordmedia.co.nz or email james@lastwordmedia.co.nz.

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