Experts Place New Urgency on Maintaining Employee Trust


No communications team alone could rebuild employee trust at companies where senior management has blatantly swindled stockholders, staffers and other stakeholders. But as confidence in corporate America remains low, placing an increased emphasis on maintaining - or repairing - your organization's credibility with its most important constituency is more important than ever. Recently-released studies show that employee concern about the state of corporate America is growing - more than 80 percent of public company employees surveyed recently by Fleishman-Hillard reported they believe executive greed is driving corporate wrongdoing. And human resources consultancy Watson Wyatt's 2002 WorkUSA study of more than 12,000 employees in a variety of industries shows only 39 percent of employees trust the senior leaders of their firms. The best corporate communicators have never needed the numbers to understand the importance of open lines of communication with the workforce. "Our commitment to employee communications is driven by the fact that for customers, the first point of contact is often a ticket agent or a gate agent," says Tim Doke, VP of corporate communications for American Airlines and this year's recipient of the PRSA PR Professional of the Year award. "It's not an afterthought. We place a higher priority on employees than perhaps any other audience." For American, that has meant more than 25 years of daily communication with employees, through newsletters and a massive technology infrastructure that allows even field employees to access the "Jet Set," standalone PCs in break rooms that let employees check out the corporate intranet, as well as a variety of communiqués from the company and CEO Don Carty. In the last year, and even before Sept. 11, American's communications team stepped up its daily communications to employees to ensure they understood the economic crunch, the company's reaction to the terrorist attacks and corporate financial problems. Management Buy-In But for PR teams that don't have the funding to implement a high-tech communications system to reach all employees, or - more importantly - senior management as committed to employee communication as American's Carty, building employee trust can be an even more difficult proposition. "Corporate leadership has to have an appreciation of and commitment to employee communications," says Mike Cherenson, VP of PR firm The Cherenson Group. "This has to come from the top. Even if HR and PR are committed to it, if senior management are not working for their employees, they will not become better communicators." Achieving management buy-in might be a little easier with the new survey data from Fleishman-Hillard and Watson Wyatt showing the impact of employee trust on the bottom line. But there are other tactics for winning over key leaders. First, says Watson Wyatt's Kathryn Yates, find out what's really impeding their communications with employees. Is it a lack of understanding of the importance of communication or a lack of necessary skills? Yates, communications practice director, recommends a skills assessment. "Sometimes the situation is not that management is not aligning themselves with the values of the company," but that they need training on how to be more open with employees at all levels, she says. Listen a Little Once management has a clearer picture of the need to make employee relations a priority, don't begin by barraging the workforce with your messages. "'Communication' implies a dialogue, not a monologue," says Don Etling, co-chair of F-H's internal communications practice. Etling says employers need to engage their employees in a strategic discussion. A "discussion" however, doesn't mean sending out a broad. "I'm not interested in whether the employee is happy," says Yates. "I'm interested in whether they understand their role." Maria Yannopoulos whose consultancy, Mey Communications, is currently working for ExxonMobil, also advises communicators to hone their employee surveys from sweeping questionnaires to targeted, actionable vehicles for employee feedback. A questionnaire that covers everything from office supplies to whether or not employees are happy with their current positions will return so much data that it will be almost impossible to use, she says. Employee frustration will grow when they see their feedback isn't being implemented. Ask employees for suggestions about an area you know you will be able to change. Break Down the Silos Once you've achieved a dialogue with employees and begun messaging, be sure you're working in close conjunction with other departments. Every company differs in terms of where the responsibility for employee relations lies: At some, it is squarely beneath the umbrella of communications, while in others it may lie in the human resources department. But regardless of how the function works within your organization, taking the initiative and acting as a spearhead to regain employee trust can help improve relations with other departments. If training is necessary to implement a change, work with human resources to ensure that you're on the same page. And if organizational problems need to be addressed, be sure that your corporate infrastructure is incenting employees to address them. Yates recalls announcing a restructuring during a former role. "We announced a change in how we structured the national sales force. It was a structure that would give [the workforce] more opportunities. But the compensation system was driving the opposite behavior. The compensation system was a much stronger communicator." Bringing middle management into the loop is a key step, as well. "Make sure you've engaged the front line managers in strategic decisions," Etling says. Doke's team has developed a special vehicle to alert tiers of managers to issues that will be announced to employees later. "It grew out of a lot of survey work we had done that told us employees want to hear company news from their managers," he says. Most of all, employees are looking for honest communications and a better understanding of their role in solving company problems. "We use communications to help people understand [crisis situations], the steps we're taking to resolve them, and what they can do to help," Doke says. Business Operates with the Permission of Employees PR legend Arthur W. Page once said that business operates with the permission of its publics. "Businesses operate with the permission of their employees," Cherenson paraphrases. The following survey data demonstrate just how true the old adage is: More than 80 percent of public company employees believe executive greed is driving corporate wrongdoing (F-H) 77 percent believe their performance as an individual affects the value of the company's stock (F-H) Companies with strong communication show a 23 percent return on shareholder value, while companies whose employees rate their communication lower show only a 7 percent return (WW) 39 percent of employees at U.S. companies trust company leadership (WW) 43 percent of employees say their companies effectively manage business changes (WW) 31 percent of employees rate their companies highly on communications (WW) The good news: 72 percent of respondents to the Fleishman-Hillard survey feel the information they receive from employers regarding financial results is adequate. "This tells me companies are doing a better job of education," Etling says. For more information on the Fleishman-Hillard survey, contact Don Etling, 314/982-1700; to view the Watson Wyatt data, see http://www.watsonwyatt.com/research. (Contacts: Tim Doke, 817/967-3540; Cherenson, mcherenson@cherenson.com; Yates, 312/704-2693; Yannopoulos, meycomm@aol.com; Etling, 314/982-1700)

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