Your Employees Are Dying to Be Heard

Poor workplace communication could be costing you business in more ways than you might imagine. Here's what you can do to improve it

According to Opinion Research (IUSA) in Princeton, N.J., a firm that has conducted research for about 60 years, what annoys employees more than anything else is poor communication. And unhappy employees can do more damage to your business than you might imagine. Opinion Research practice director Terry Reilly says that beyond delivering shoddy customer service, disgruntled employees are less likely to recommend your company as a great place to work, which will hurt recruitment efforts. Reilly says communication can be the Achilles' heel of your organization or it can be the centerpiece. Here's what Reilly recommends to improve communication between management and employees.

Solicit opinions. One out of three U.S employees does not believe his or her opinions are taken into account, according to surveys by Opinion Research. Reilly says employees who feel they are fed information instead of being allowed to participate in the organization's activities report higher levels of disengagement.

In my own interviews with inspiring leaders, it has been clear the old command and control style of communication is over. Today's employees, especially younger workers, want to know their opinions are encouraged, valued, and respected.

Communicate change. In a November, 2007, survey, Opinion Research found employees are annoyed by managers who fail to discuss company news. In these uncertain economic times, change is constant. Reilly says if you know a change is coming, communicate the reason behind the change. Better yet, ask employees for their views on how best to implement needed changes. This creates a positive feeling in the workplace, even if the changes are not welcomed by all. The reverse is also true. Failing to communicate upcoming changes results in a negative perception, creates disengagement, and makes those changes tougher to embrace when they're implemented.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Ritz-Carlton President Simon Cooper. Before the hotel chain underwent a dramatic change in the way employees were instructed to interact with guests, Cooper and senior managers embarked on a tour of the luxury chain's properties to explain why the change was needed and to elicit opinions from frontline staff. The result was buy-in from employees who were affected by the change and expected to provide top-notch service.

In a recent BusinessWeek column (, 4/24/08) former GE (GE) CEO Jack Welch advocates the need for transparency when communicating change. Welch writes: "Most managers know from experience that employees get more pumped when they understand where the company is going, why, and what role they play in getting there." Explain the reasons behind your changes.

Include employees in feedback loop. Companies often take surveys of customers via the Web, over the phone, or with a suggestion box near the front door. Reilly has discovered that little of this information makes it way back to the people who actually do the selling. All companies need feedback on how their products are perceived in the marketplace, but if you don't communicate the results to the people who represent the brand, there's little chance they'll implement the necessary changes.

Make communication personal. The more important the issue, the more vital it is to communicate the ideas personally. Reilly says too many important issues are relegated to e-mail and therefore lost in the deluge that most of us find in our inboxes. Many managers don't want to take the time to walk down the hall and visit an employee in person, but that means they lose out on making an impression on employees. Reilly says personal contact does not have to happen daily, but you should make it a point to address larger issues at least once a week. Small staff or one-on-one meetings, brown bag lunches, blogs, even videotaped messages are all more personal than e-mail.

Finally, instead of trying to guess whether you're communicating enough with your staff, Reilly recommends you ask employees: "Are you getting enough information to do your jobs effectively?" Then be sure to pay attention to the answers.

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