Avoiding Assumptions in Employee Communications

Visit the April 2022 issue of Strategies & Tactics for more insights on employee communications.

Before I was born, my parents brought a Golden Retriever puppy into the family. When Happy was diagnosed with cancer, they faced a difficult choice: Amputate her leg or put her to sleep.

As my parents were just starting out and the surgery was expensive, they made the hard decision to put her down. My dad was so distraught that when he dropped off Happy at the veterinary clinic, he could only bring himself to say: “Go ahead and do it.”

Imagine their surprise and delight days later when the vet called asking why they hadn’t been in to collect Happy, who was now standing on three legs, cancer-free and ready to go home.

I’ve always loved this story — not only because the outcome was that Happy became my first dog — but because it’s one that began with heartbreak and ended in the resurrection of the beloved family pet.

This story also highlights how unclear communications can lead to unintended outcomes. It’s an age-old problem: The sender assumes that the receiver has context that they don’t, and what gets conveyed isn’t enough.

It is the responsibility of every employee communicator to deliver messages free from assumptions. Employee communicators often have context that their audiences don’t. We are in conversations with the C-suite and the legal and HR departments. Our level of understanding is more robust than our audience’s, so delivering a compelling message at the right level can be challenging.

Here are some steps we can take to help guarantee our organizations and clients convey clear messages:

Begin with the end in mind.

What do I need employees to do? Adopt a new process? Manage costs? Sell a new service? Keep the impact on them at the center of the message. We encourage clients to test messages with small groups of employees or colleagues who don’t have context to confirm that it makes sense or pinpoint holes in information that need to be filled before rolling out the announcement.

Cultivate trust.

There were two communication fails in my family dog story: The sender didn’t deliver on clarity — I’m so glad you didn’t, Dad! — and the receiver (vet tech) didn’t confirm they’d understood correctly. In our work with corporate and higher ed clients, we coach that delivering well-crafted communications isn’t enough.

Ask employees if they understand how the news impacts them and their work. When employees feel free to ask clarifying questions, escalate concerns (whistleblowing services), engage a champion (allies and mentors) or share ideas that challenge company norms, we avoid confusion and cultivate trust. Equipping your leaders with the tools to have these conversations with their employees can be a big help.

Collect feedback.

Communications and journalism majors studied the communications process in college and understand the concepts of sender, medium, receiver and message. But too often, organizations forget the last step: feedback.

Make sure that your internal communications plans include tactics such as regular employee surveys, providing anticipated questions and draft responses for managers ahead of big announcements, and leadership listening tours.

Internal communications pros are duty-bound to represent the company’s interests while keeping employee delight a priority. Finding this balance can be challenging but, by introducing accountability and avoiding assumptions, employee communicators help deliver harmony — even happiness — in the workplace.

Tia Over is executive vice president and COO at Spring Green Communications, advising corporate and higher ed clients on communications strategy. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, two children and their English Springer Spaniel, Penny. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[Photo credit: sergey nivens]


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