How to Communicate with Employees When You Don’t Know Everything

Too many companies delay communicating with employees until they have “all” the answers or have decided every last detail of a big change. This is the wrong approach for many reasons.

In addition to getting the rumor mill started (especially when someone is tipped off that the CEO and CFO have been in back-to-back meetings all week), it excludes your employees and doesn’t treat them like the smart, educated, and rational adults they are. They know something is up — and it is in the best interest of the company to make them feel like their concerns are being accounted for and listened to, even as decisions are being made.

It is simple to put together an executive communication that addresses employees’ concerns while setting expectations about what may or may not come next. Follow this format:

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  • Introduce letter/email/podcast and set context (what’s going on, why you’re getting this info, “we know you’re concerned about X, Y and Z…)
  • This is what we do know. Explain key issue (for example, “The economy is forcing us to make significant changes to the business.
  • As a result, this is what’s changing:
    • Bullet or paragraph list of changes or program impacts
    • Be specific;
    • Explain when/how employees will receive more details.
  • This is what we don’t know/what may happen(for example, “We don’t yet know how this will impact bonus payouts or salary increases.”).
    • Bullet or paragraph list of what is TBD — to be decided;
    • Be clear about when you’ll know more/make decisions;
  • Where to go with questions (to managers, online, etc.)
  • Thank employees for dedication and patience.

For even better results, send this out to managers a couple days in advance and give them talking points and a Q&A to have in-person conversations with employees. Give them, and individual employees, a way to report back and ask questions.

Directly address employee concerns and be clear and honest about what’s happening. This approach will always be more successful than silence.

Jennifer Benz is Chief Strategist and Founder of Benz Communications, a San Francisco-based consultancy that focuses on custom, comprehensive benefits and HR communications services. Jen is an active member of the Council for Communication Management, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Northern California Human Resources Association and Women in Consulting. Contact her at jen@benzcommunications.com.

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