Communication 101: Reviewing the golden rules of HR communication
By Elaine Varelas, 05/12/2008
This recent spell of warm weather is prompting kids everywhere to daydream about school's end: swimming, summer camp, and long lazy days without homework. Some of us adults may want to catch that summer bug too, especially after this long, snowy winter. Of course our daydreams look a little different - coming into work later, taking off early on Fridays, or (gasp!) wearing flip flops to the office. Though the end of the school year is a classic time to slack off, many human resources managers could use a refresher course in the basics of HR communication. Let's try to squeeze in one more lesson before the last bell rings.
We all know how important communication is to human resources managers. It is how we reach out to our core constituents - employees, members of leadership, vendors, clients, and recruits - and how we manage the flow of information. Effective communication skills are a cornerstone of almost every HR function. With so much riding on communication, it makes sense to put more thought and effort into honing our skills.
So, class, let's review the five golden rules of human resources communication:
1. Have the difficult conversations - Confrontation can make even the boldest of us feel squeamish. Unfortunately, avoiding tough issue doesn't make them go away. In fact, problems can escalate the longer they are left to fester. While it may make you feel uncomfortable to tackle the problem of that domineering manager you've received several complaints about, or the vice president who hasn't promoted a female in years, you are leaving your organization vulnerable if you don't. First, go for understanding - and it may not even be the confrontation you were dreading!
2. Match the method (and the messenger) to the message - There are many types of communication: e-mails, memos, voicemails, in-person meetings, and presentations. Each of these communication methods has its place. Unfortunately, the methods are often used inappropriately. E-mail is a great way to let employees know about small changes in their benefits package, but it's not a suitable means for announcing a merger. Just like you wouldn't want your spouse to break off your marriage via text message, you shouldn't fire someone through an e-mail. It is also important to consider who delivers the message. A major change in the company, positive or negative, should be communicated by a major player-not a junior person in HR.
3. Praise in public, punish in private - When you have something nice to say, tell everyone, and tell them often. When it's not so nice, then talk to only the specific person or group. All too often, when there is good news to share, a public acknowledgement is overlooked. On the other hand, when there is something (or someone) to criticize, it is often done in front of everyone. In one case, the CEO of a company was addressing the entire organization and complaining about the company's poor showing on Wall Street and said, "Who is not working hard?" What every employee heard, was an accusation: "Why aren't you working harder?" This type of statement puts employees on the defensive and creates an unpleasant, if not hostile, working environment. If this kind of communication is used by the top of the organization, what message does that send to managers and how they should behave within their departments? Managers don't need to be Pollyannas, but they do need to respect their employees. Behaviors need to be addressed, but people are not to be demeaned.
4. Honesty Rules - When there is an impending change at the organization - an M&A, a leader's departure, a lawsuit, or a layoff-HR managers must be honest about what will be happening. It may be tricky to divulge sensitive information, but you should be as truthful as possible and offer as many of the facts available. Timing is also important. HR managers need to get out in front of big news as soon as possible. By giving a quick and honest response, managers gain credibility with employees who know they can depend on you for answers. If HR managers put off communication or hide details, the office grapevine will take over spreading rumors and spinning the message out of control, and employees will be preoccupied with gossip instead of their work.
5. Keep it regular - If you dread those monthly staff meetings because there is so much to cover, you may want to consider weekly meetings. Communication is easier to manage when it is done routinely. Like exercise, once you get into a groove, it becomes part of your life (and you become healthier for it). Regular communication is like exercise for an organization. Being "in the know" also puts employees at ease and allows them to focus on their work.
OK class, put your books away - it's time for a pop quiz. No, you won't be tested on these golden rules of communication right now, but you can be assured that you will be tested at work. If you brush up on these basics of HR communication skills, you can become a more effective communicator and HR manager (and maybe even leave a little early this Friday!).
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