When I started in employee communications back in the late 1980s, what we called “internal communications” was limited to decorating the staff bulletin board, producing the newsletter with the bowling scores, and planning the company picnic.
Lucky for me, the role changed in the mid 1990s, as companies began to understand that employees were more than simply hired bodies, easy to find and easy to replace. As American business expanded, employers stopped viewing their workforce as highly expendable commodities and began to treat their employees as extensions of the brand.
Internal communications was all about finding ways to connect employees and their roles to the company strategy.
Ahhh. Good times.
Fast-forward to the mid-2010s and what do you have? Companies that have cut, cut, cut to the bone. Memo after memo about benefits cuts, belt-tightening and divestitures. Employees biding their time until they can leave for greener pastures. And in the case of a certain JetBlue flight attendant, employees who quit their job in a dramatic, disruptive and highly publicized manner.
Now some may argue that the poor economy is to blame, that fear and uncertainty have had a negative effect on companies and employees alike. But according to research conducted by Veronica Hope Hailey, associate dean and professor of strategic human resource management at Cass Business School of City University in London, trust and engagement were iffy well before the recession.
Hope Hailey presented her research at this year’s IABC World Conference and the results were, to say the least, eye-opening.
According to Hope Hailey, four factors contributed to overall job dissatisfaction.
- Merger, acquisition and globalization activities which result in senior managers seeming very remote
- Perceived lack of control over one’s personal destiny and career in a large organization
- The shift from a “job for life” and growing insecurity in a changing job market
- Disengagement/cynicism with organization-wide change initiatives, both in how they are perceived (not locally relevant), and the pace of change
Employees surveyed by Hope Hailey and her research team believed that senior executives were unaware of the challenges that lower level employees faced. In addition, the researchers found that very few employees trusted their senior management to lead them.
As Hope Hailey noted, “Trust is critical in times of transformational change. You can cut costs and headcount…but you cannot execute transformation or innovation or rebuild a climate of commitment without trust.”
So what can leaders do to win back the hearts and minds of their employees?
First, they have to start listening to employees and taking all feedback – the good, the bad and the ugly – to heart. It won’t be easy; no one wants to hear a litany of complaints. But if employers act upon feedback and employees see that their thoughts and opinions matter, in time the comments will shift from complaints to suggestions for improvements and innovations.
Next, executives have to start talking to employees again. Get out of the big, fancy office and hit the shop floor to talk to employees about the business – where things stand now and where they are heading. Don’t sugar-coat the bad stuff. Your employees know that times are tough. But if leaders are straight with their employees, and trust them enough to be honest, the employees may start to trust their leaders again.
Granted, this recession and recovery has lasted much longer than many of us could have predicted back in early 2009. But sooner or later the economy will rebound and opportunities will open up for those employees who have been sitting back and biding their time.
And by then it will be too late to worry about “employee engagement.”