Employee Engagement in an Era of Social Change
By Mark Shadle
It’s a challenging time for company executives and communicators alike as both groups try to decide what to say to their employees about the current political, economic and social environment.
On one side of the spectrum, business is booming, signaling good opportunities for employers and job seekers alike. Unemployment is at its lowest point in decades. For the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans think the current environment is a good time to find a quality job. And, according to Gallup, in February 2017, economic confidence among Americans reached its highest level in nearly a decade. Trust in business is up.
But the workplace is not immune to the issues of the day. The nation is divided by voting party and, to some degree, by generation. Consumers today report feeling a sense of injustice, a lack of hope, a lack of confidence in the system and a desire for change. For management, there is real reason for concern: these are not the worries of an isolated group, but instead may mirror the views of their own employees. Everywhere, employees are uncertain about the future and are eager for information they can trust.
Employees say they want to see their leadership take a stand on key social issues. But leaders must act thoughtfully and consider the breadth of employee and stakeholder views when taking an organizational position. Consider the recent actions of Starbucks, Lyft and Amazon, applauded in the media for their responses to Trump administration policies. Morning Consult’s poll showed that roughly 60 percent of Millennials supported these corporate actions. But a closer look at the research found support for these corporate moves dropped with age, with only half of people in their 30s in favor of the actions, and even fewer among Gen X. Every company has its own blend of generations, genders and ethnicities, so it’s wise for management to consider the entire employee population and seek to communicate with everyone on important issues.
In this environment, there are several considerations for how a company should communicate to its employees about political and social change. Whether a company says something or not will depend on whether they have anything of substance to communicate. Is anything actually changing for employees? Is there an imminent threat to the business that everyone should know about? Will a communication make employees feel safer, less worried? The answers to those questions will ultimately guide the decision for each individual company.
Following are some communications guidelines when communicating to employees, especially on social issues:
- Use this time as an opportunity to assert the company’s values. Acknowledge uncertainty but make the company’s values clear and explicit. Note: There really is no bad time to do this.
- Explain to employees WHY the current environment matters to the company and how management is making its decisions.
- It’s not a brand moment; it’s a strategy moment. Companies that are built to last are able to weather all sorts of change, political and otherwise.
- If the company operates globally, remind employees of the need for respect of cultures everywhere, especially differences.
- Do not assume that all your stakeholders agree. Consider the election results; there may be many employees who support this administration.
- Operationally, step up your monitoring. Be transparent about what you know and how it is shaping decisions.
- Plan for more than one communication – don’t just issue a single communique. As news unfolds there likely will be more developments and more to say to employees. Maintain a dialogue.
- Assume that any internal communication WILL become public and shared on social media.
- Make sure employees know there is somewhere to go or someone to talk to if they have any concerns – ethical, emotional.
- How employees you are listening to them. If management sends out something, show that it started from conversations with employees.
In this environment, we should consider using research and creative analytics to confirm the right steps – and avoid missteps.
With the range of tools readily available now, we can help leadership and communicators to test their messages and positions. We can explore a range of ideas and approaches with select groups of employees in advance of final decisions. And once the company has made its decisions and taken a stand, research can help them evaluate employees’ reactions.
Most important, leadership needs to consider employees first among their stakeholders. Building internal support in the early days will lead to greater advocacy and success later.