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Managing corporate communication in turbulent times: partnering with human resources.

Nothing seems out of the ordinary on your way to work that Friday morning. Maybe you read a little, catch up on the news, hum along with a few favorite tunes.

Then, you open the office door and see a tight knot of early arrivers standing around Sandy's desk. Their shocked faces say it all: On the way home tonight, your employer will be featured on the local business news. As you move toward your desk to pick up a copy of the bulletin everyone else is holding, the tune you've been humming changes. With a wry grimace you recall an old hit from the '70s, and you start singing to yourself, "It Can't Happen Here, It Can't Happen Here...."

But it is happening -- here, there and everywhere. It's a merger in one instance, a major market shift in another... organizations are "rightsizing," "restructuring," "retooling for the '90s." In one sense it really doesn't matter how you say it, it all adds up to the same thing: wrenching change in the work lives of millions of people.

Change of this magnitude presents a strong challenge to internal communicators -- a challenge that often reaches beyond the scope of their function alone. Does this mean that if you're in charge of employee communication, you'll stand by helplessly, watching the castle crumble around you and hoping to dodge a pink slip?

Maybe not. Some very successful organizations have found that a working partnership between employee communication and human resources is a powerful response to change. General Electric and Owens-Corning Fiberglas, among others, have developed change management strategies that merge traditional communication and HR department roles.

Jack Welch, CEO at GE, says his vision for the '90s includes a boundaryless company. "In a boundaryless company," Welch says, "internal functions begin to blur." One group doesn't design a program and then "hand it off to the next box on the organization chart. Instead, says Welch, they form a team that works on an issue or project from start to finish.

Work-place changes:What's going on out there?

Right now the challenge for many employers is a deeply troubled and disaffected work force. Change at today's chaotic pace sends a cold chill through the work place. Fear and anxiety run rampant, resistance rises, productivity drains away. The fact is that when there is a major organizational change, people stop doing their jobs and start asking, "What's going to happen to me?"

Attitude studies conducted among hundreds of thousands of workers reveal this profile of today's employee:

* Reeling from change;

* More suspicious of management;

* Stressed and pressured to the point of paralysis;

* Anxious for leadership.

For example, a 1990 Lou Harris & Assoc. study among U.S. and Canadia office workers found that only 38 percent are confident that management is honest in dealings with them. Even fewer -- 27 percent -- believe that management cares about employees as individuals.

In focus groups that the author conducted for an aerospace manufacturer in the Western U.S., employees said things like, "You don't want to draw attention to yourself for fear that will get you on a layoff list. So you just keep your head down, live from day to day, and hope for the best."

This is an extreme example; aerospace firms around the world are in the midst of a vicious shakeout. Nevertheless, these findings reflect the feelings of workers in many industries across the U.S., Canada, and (to a certain extent) the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

|Partnering' to manage the effects of change

Employers who manage change successfully recognize that employees want:

* A good working grasp of the situation;

* Confidence in top management;

* Job options and recognition;

* Human support networks;

* The ability to contribute and to influence.

The three needs listed last straddle the fence between traditional communication and human resources responsibilities. To be responsive, the two groups should work closely together. joint development of change management plans, as well as teamwork during implementation, help ensure that the results of their efforts are accepted and used throughout the organization.

But perhaps more importantly, the two groups should form a common front to market their partnership strategy to management. The reason is simple: Organizational turmoil is often caused by -- or at least accompanied by -- a period of reduced income. As a result, competition among managers for scarce resources is even fiercer than usual. In this setting, it is far easier to sell a CEO on an action plan when it is sponsored by two or more senior staff members, rather than one manager acting alone.

What makes continuing change bearable?

And there can be no doubt, top management must be part of the solution. When the work place is chaotic, employees overwhelmingly prefer face-to-face communication. From mahogany row to the security shack, the demand from people at every level is: "Talk to me! Now!"

And not just talk -- "Listen to me! is an equally pressing request. Yet, two recent studies indicate that management is not listening. A Towers Perrin study found that among employees surveyed, less than half believe management is aware of their problems. The Hay Group studied more than one million workers in over 2,000 organizations. Only 34 percent said that management listens to them.

Organizations that act in their own best interest take these demands seriously, however. They respond with open, effective communication -- especially small group meetings backed up by short, straightforward print pieces.

Conclusion: Honesty really is die best policy

Perhaps the key words in the last sentence are "open" and "straightforward." Here's why: In the 1970s, Harvard Medical School conducted studies to investigate why some people who have suffered a major operation heal faster than others.

One research project, led by Irv Janis, M.D., came to a startling conclusion: Most people heal faster from severe trauma when they are told the whole unpleasant truth about what to expect. Janis found that the typical "bedside manner" of reassuring a patient --

* "Everything's going to be okay, don't you worry ..."

* "We've done this operation many times; you'll be up and around in no time ... " led to very high levels of fear and anxiety when -- during the healing process -- the patient experienced the inevitable: great pain, complications, adhesions and so on.

On the other hand, a realistic preview of what was likely to occur led to much lower levels of concern during convalescence -- and significantly faster healing.

Naturally, Janis' findings caught the attention of people studying the effects of major trauma in the work place. For example, David Schweiger, Ph.D. (University of South Carolina), researched the effects of a "realistic preview" among workers in a merger of two Fortune 500 manufacturers.

Employees at Plant One received a full preview of the psychological and operational aspects of the merger. Channels used were a biweekly newsletter, a telephone hotline for questions and weekly meetings between the plant manager and eight department heads.

Nothing unusual was done at Plant Two. Merger information was passed along to workers through their regular monthly newsletter, bulletin board memos and occasional meetings.

Schweiger's results were dramatic:

"Ratings of commitment and job satisfaction dropped at both plants in the first month as some layoffs were undertaken and jobs were changed. Ratings of management's trustworthiness, honesty and concern for employees also dropped. Within a few months, however, the realistically prepared employees regained their prior ratings of job satisfaction and saw the company as being far more trustworthy, honest and caring than those in the other plant. Eventually, performance improved over pre-merger levels. By contrast, at [Plant Two] ... attitudes grew worse in almost every area measured as time went on." (P.H. Mirvis and M.L. Marks, "Managing the Merger: Making It Work," New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992, p. 133.)

The significance of these studies for communication-HR partnerships is clear. Employees who are told the truth about turbulence in the work place are likely to react more appropriately and "heal" more quickly. The results will be higher productivity, sooner, after major organizational changes.

To achieve these positive results, employees must understand that as change progresses there will be:

* False starts and surprises.

Management should acknowledge their uncertainty about exactly how all aspects of the new organization will work. For example:

-- Plans and structures will be tried that don't function well; they'll be altered suddenly.

-- Jobs will be changed and then changed again. Workers deal with these shifts better when they anticipate the unexpected, and changes are explained.

* Pain and loss. The facts are:

-- Friends will be laid off or transferred.

-- Valued jobs and special perks will disappear. Employees grieve less deeply and for a shorter time when they are told these things will occur, and support networks are provided to help them get reoriented.

They want help from you -- and you've got it to give

For management to realize the benefits of changes they have made, the organization must regain stability and predictability as quickly as possible. They must have:

* A work force that understands their agenda;

* Reduction in change-related stress;

* Commitment to the "new" organization;

* Improved productivity and effectiveness.

Most CEOs would prefer to achieve these goals primarily through the knowledge and hands-on help of their internal resources -- HR, communication and others. In practice, many chief executives are paying outside consultants not just to advise them, but to do the work of developing and implementing change management programs. As a result, consulting on change management is a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry.

For communicators and HR professionals, this spells opportunity -- the chance to be part of their organization's "dominant coalition." It's the dominant coalition that retains consultants, and manages consulting relationships.

Consultants have important contributions to make when an organization is planning or managing change. Their wide experience, specialized knowledge and objective viewpoint can help management make better decisions, avoid pitfalls, and resolve conflicts.

The question is, who is managing the consultants, and who is actually performing the work planned by the consultants when they act in their most useful roles -- as coaches and advisors? Senior communication and HR executives are the appropriate interface for many change management counselors; yet often these consultants are reporting to people higher up the organization chart.

Should you put yourself on the fine?

Is the reward worth the risk for you to put yourself on the line? Should you initiate a coalition between the group you lead and others, which have widely differing responsibilities and agendas? To find out, try it on a simple, relatively straightforward project.

For example, health care benefit expenses may be hampering your employer's ability to generate an appropriate level of profit. The Human Resources Research Institute reports that, in the U.S., health care cost containment continues to be the number one HR issue for the 90s. (Motivation/leadership is number two; number three is employee communication.)

There's a very good chance that your company's HR department has something in mind to hold down health care expenditures. If that's the case and you're not already involved, try this:

* Approach the senior HR executive and ask how far along they are in their planning.

* Offer the services of yourself and your group as partners in the change management process.

* If a consultant is involved, tell HR that you will be pleased to peer review the consultant's work, to help make sure it is appropriate for your organization.

* If there's no consultant involved, offer to form a joint HR-communications task team to:

-- Develop materials that will make it easy for managers and supervisors to hold face-to-face meetings with their employees. The purpose of these meetings will be to explain available health care options and solicit employee feedback.

-- Prepare a report to employees about their input.

After HR has decided what cost controls are appropriate, put the partnership's task team back into action:

* Distribute information to supervisors that helps them announce the changes to be made and their foreseeable effects.

* Establish a telephone or E-mail linkage to clear up unknowns and rumors.

* Make sure that all team communications acknowledge the pain and disorientation that some employees will feel.

* Prepare materials that reemphasize how the changes will help meet the organization's profit goal, and how and why this will be beneficial to employees.

After Hr's health care cost management program has been in place for six months or so, and the situation has stabilized:

* Evaluate the effects and the success of the new system. Employee focus groups, or small group meetings that fill out short surveys will be useful.

* Inform supervisors of your findings so they can discuss them with employees. Prepare a more detailed report to HR management, so that they can consider whether mid-course corrections are needed.

By this time -- if the brief scenario above works for you -- a strong and capable partnership should have formed. Then, when turbulence increases in your organization -- as it almost surely will at some time -- you will have:

* A cross-functional team in place that has planned, worked, and won together

* A track record of successfully managing change.

During the inevitable tough times, top management will welcome help from the executives that proactively assembled such a team. And that could put you and your HR partner right where you belong -- as part of your organization's dominant coalition.

Gary Kemper, ABC, is a communication consultant with William M. Mercer, Inc., Los Angeles, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Kemper, Gary W.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1992
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