Employee Comms

A Strategy for Better Communication with Unhappy Employees


 — March 5th, 2019

A Strategy for Better Communication with Unhappy Employees

Successful communication requires active participants on both sides. For a person to hear and understand you, they have to be willing to listen to what you have to say.

That means for internal communications professionals, one of the hardest challenges to overcome is dealing with a workforce that isn’t happy with the company.

If the people you’re trying to communicate with are unsatisfied in their jobs and don’t trust the business you represent, they won’t want to hear what you have to say. And they won’t be confident that you’ll listen to anything they have to say. That’s a big hurdle you have to get past before you can set up an effective internal communications program.

And it’s the situation Laura Barbour faced when she started working at the manufacturing company Formica. The company had a bad relationship with the union, which caused a contentious relationship with employees.

Soon after starting, she looked over the recent engagement scores. “When you’re in a corporate world, you don’t often see a zero. On all of the 65 questions we asked, we had zeros,” she said. “We had things at 13%. Rarely would a score be over 50%. We went through the pack page by page and just didn’t know where to start.”

The data made clear that she was dealing with employees that weren’t happy. In our webinar on engaging non-desk employees, she shared the strategy they used to get valuable feedback and start effectively communicating with the unsatisfied workforce.

How to help line managers become better communicators

Prioritize Listening

“If you’re...working with operatives that often don’t get a chance to express their voice, if you’re meeting people who’ve been kept quiet—the first thing you must do, really, is to understand your people,” said Barbour.

The things you (and your higher-ups) want to communicate to them have to come second. Start by giving them the chance to share their thoughts and concerns with you. To do that effectively, Barbour’s strategy included four main steps.

  • Review any data you have now.

Even if you have limited information to start with, use what you have. From reviewing the engagement scores, Barbour learned that she’d be dealing with a lot of unsatisfied employees—something it’s better to know in advance. And she also learned that one of the areas where they were unhappy was in their relationship with the leadership team.

Those insights were key in the strategy she developed to listen to the employees. She knew to keep the leadership team out of the room to start. Since she and her colleague were new, they could sit down with the employees without the same baggage. And she knew to be prepared for strong opinions and emotions heading into the room.

  • Establish the main categories of employees you want to hear from.

Knowing that she’d face employees who were angry, they devised a way to listen to the most unhappy customers without letting them drown out the voices of the others. They divided employees into three main categories:

  • Reds - People who were the most opinionated and vocal.
  • Oranges - Employees that are more middle-of-the-road in their opinions. Not happy, but not necessarily angry.
  • Greens - People who are a little more satisfied with the job, and seem interested in a long-term career with the company.

They identified some people that fell into each category and made plans to meet with each group separately. By separating the three groups out and talking to all of them, Barbour was confident they’d get an accurate picture of the main issues all the employees faced.

  • Set up listening sessions.

With each of the three groups, they set up two-hour listening sessions. Ideally, you want everyone coming into these sessions to know they can be honest without fear of reprisal. Barbour and her team attempted to get that message out there in advance of the sessions, but unsuccessfully. Even so, once in the room they strove to make it clear they were there to listen and genuinely interested in hearing what the employees had to say.

This is crucial in this step: you have to de-center yourself or the company and focus on the experiences and opinions of the employees. Be willing to hear out their complaints, without immediately jumping to solutions (that part can come later).

  • Repeat your main takeaways back to them.

When working with employees that don’t trust the company, making sure you leave the room on the same page is paramount. They need to be confident that you won’t twist their words or use what they said against them later.

To do that, Laura essentially repeated the main takeaways of the conversation back to the employees to give them a chance to confirm.

“We had to make sure when we left the room that everything we had written up was accurate from their point of view. We ended up building a pack that had a whole load of verbatim comments that we’d broken down by five themes,” she explained. “We got them to agree to the five themes before we left the room.”

By getting their feedback into writing in a format the employees can sign off on before the listening session is up, you’ll know you’re walking away with an accurate impression of the main feelings and issues they have. And just as importantly, they’ll know you heard them and understood what they were saying.

How to help line managers become better communicators

The First Step to Communication

All of this was a precursor to building out an internal communications program that bridged some of the distance between the employees and management, But none of the other initiatives they tried would have worked without taking that first, important step of listening to the employees.

That’s an important step in any type of communication, but for internal communications at a company with employee dissatisfaction, the value of this kind of strategic listening is hard to overstate.

To learn more about the steps Laura and her team took from there to build out their internal communications strategy, you can find the full story here.

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