HETRICK: Eight easy-to-adopt employee communication lessons

Bruce Hetrick
October 12, 2013
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Bruce Hetrick

Bruce HetrickAt IUPUI, Chancellor Charles Bantz loves to talk about translational research. The notion is that we faculty members should learn things that will make an impact in the real world. It’s the opposite of research that collects dust on a shelf.

So here’s some unscientific research with useful implications for people who manage people.

Because my students have been studying employee communications, I posted a note on Facebook asking my friends to share the best or worst example of employee communications they’d experienced during their careers. Naturally, they remember and report bad examples far more than good ones.

Lesson 1: Speak and write simply.

A friend in Indianapolis cites “senior staff and executives using acronyms and names that they assume everyone in the organization is familiar with. Meanwhile, junior staff are left feeling uninformed.”

Every organization has secret lingo and industry jargon worthy of a fraternity handshake. It grows commonplace. Taken for granted. But if you’re a newbie or underling, the mumbo-jumbo can leave you with that “I’m-not-in-the-know” feeling.

Lesson 2: Say why.

Another local communicator writes, “The worst example of employee communication is no communication when it comes to organizational change. As an employee, I hated coming into the office and finding out through another employee that some big change was going to happen.”

Leaders making big changes work on them for months. They understand the rationale, believe in the new course.

But by the time they explain things to the masses, they’re too often using shorthand. They forget to explain why. Like a good murder mystery, people facing change want to understand motive. Without that, there’s little chance of acceptance, let alone support.

Lesson 3: Protect privacy.

A training professional here told me about a boss who “tagged” [identified] employees in a Facebook post that pointed out specific areas for improvement. In early America, that was called flogging in the public square.

But it gets worse. A former broadcast journalist tells this story:

“A colleague of ours took some time off to go into rehab. The company put up a memo in the lunch room and the bathrooms about his absence that started, ‘As you all know, James has been battling a serious drinking problem for some time …’”


Lesson 4: Employees become like family. Respect that.

Another former broadcast journalist remembers, with horror, “being informed via internal email after two days off that my weekend newscast graphics designer had taken his own life.”

“No one considered that they should call me,” she writes. “I had to produce a show while dazed and in grief.”

The kicker: “Management would not give me a few hours off to attend his [funeral] service.”

Lesson 5: Don’t save complaints for annual reviews.

“Many years ago,” said a friend, “I had a boss who wrote down things I did that she didn’t like, and stashed them in a file to bring up at my annual review. I would much rather be told at the time so I could correct or defend my behavior!”


Lesson 6: Rally—don’t threaten—the troops.

A former PR colleague from Connecticut recalls, “The day my company announced a large layoff, I convinced my CEO he needed to have a company-wide meeting to deliver my carefully scripted speech speaking from the heart about how difficult it was, but the cuts were necessary for the health of the company.” Then, she said, the CEO was to say: “We are counting on you, our best and brightest, to deliver our go-forward plan.”

But at the last minute, the CEO chose to wing it. His focus: “Everyone who is left should feel lucky to have a job and work really hard or they could be next.”

Great morale booster.

Lesson 7: Don’t make people feel small.

A retired executive wrote to share a hiring horror tale. “I knew one senior executive who called all the applicants for a position together in one place so he could go around the tale to tell each one, in turn, why they didn’t get the job. Then he told the last person in the room about their promotion. Think about it: The unsuccessful candidates now had to work for the successful one. What class!”

Lesson 8: Talk straight, not B.S.

I’m always amazed at the obfuscations we use to avoid saying “layoff” or “You’re fired.” We say, “downsizing” or “right-sizing” or “reorganizing” or “reinventing” or “realigning.”

But this tale from an Indianapolis friend took the bologna cake: “The plant where I worked was eliminating 1,000 out of 3,500 positions. Lots of senior people had to take demotions and pay cuts to keep their job rather than be unemployed.

“Through a process called ‘paired comparisons,’” he said, “we were instructed to call them ‘demotional opportunities.’”

Demotional opportunity should, of course, befall anyone botching employee communications as badly as the managers mentioned here.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Can your dog sign a marriage license or personally state that he wishes to join you in a legal union? If not then no, you cannot marry him. When you teach him to read, write, and speak a discernible language, then maybe you'll have a reasonable argument. Thanks for playing!

  2. Look no further than Mike Rowe, the former host of dirty jobs, who was also a classically trained singer.

  3. Current law states income taxes are paid to the county of residence not county of income source. The most likely scenario would be some alteration of the income tax distribution formula so money earned in Marion co. would go to Marion Co by residents of other counties would partially be distributed to Marion co. as opposed to now where the entirety is held by the resident's county.

  4. This is more same-old, same-old from a new generation of non-progressive 'progressives and fear mongers. One only needs to look at the economic havoc being experienced in California to understand the effect of drought on economies and people's lives. The same mindset in California turned a blind eye to the growth of population and water needs in California, defeating proposal after proposal to build reservoirs, improve water storage and delivery infrastructure...and the price now being paid for putting the demands of a raucous minority ahead of the needs of many. Some people never, never learn..

  5. I wonder if I can marry him too? Considering we are both males, wouldn't that be a same sex marriage as well? If they don't honor it, I'll scream discrimination just like all these people have....