HR Magazine, April 2001: Got the Message?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Apr 1, 2001
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HR Magazine, April 2001Vol. 46, No. 4




HR needs to measure the impact of employee communication.

When Shaw’s Supermarkets acquired another company, rumors ran rampant. How many stores would be closed? How many people would be laid off?

Controlling the rumor mill is never easy, especially for a company with 32,000 employees in seven New England states. The solution: introduction of The Rumor Buster, a newsletter published on an as-needed—but at least weekly—basis during the merger, says Ruth Bramson, senior vice president of human resources in East Bridgewater, Mass.

"Communication is the major stumbling block to a successful merger," says Bramson. The Rumor Buster "addressed whatever horrendous rumors were going around at the moment. We found it to be an incredibly successful tool."

HR discovered just how useful the newsletter was when employees of the newly acquired company were polled; they indicated that the newsletter had been an important and positive part of the integration. “They told us they looked forward to getting The Rumor Buster because it focused on the things they were worried about,” Bramson says.

Employee feedback about how well you are communicating to employees may be just as helpful when it comes to improving other company services. When a client company of Angela Sinickas wanted to determine whether its open enrollment packet was effective, Sinickas, president of Sinickas Communications Inc., in Costa Mesa, Calif., and a widely recognized authority on communication measurement, was asked to test the packet’s effectiveness. She conducted employee focus groups three weeks after open enrollment ended using a technique based on the Starch test, an advertising research technique for unaided and aided recall of messages. Participants were asked if they remembered the package and its contents.

“We took them through the entire package, section by section,” Sinickas says. The knowledge gained through this process, including where more detail was needed and where less detail would improve understanding, was used to plan the next year’s open enrollment package.

“An organization needs to regularly communicate to enable employees to feel engaged, to feel valued, to seek their input, to keep them aware and to enable them to manage their jobs,” says Brian Lowenthal, director at Hackett Benchmarking & Research, part of Answerthink Inc., an eBusiness consulting firm in Cleveland. He adds that those communication efforts need to be strategic. The measurement of communication, Lowenthal says, “is key for organizational effectiveness and employee satisfaction.”

Communication as a Strategic Imperative

Effective communication within an organization can lead to a more engaged, loyal workforce, although Lowenthal doesn’t believe that employee communication is necessarily more of a strategic imperative today than it has been in the past.

“The circumstances and conditions that organizations face today create a sense of urgency now that wasn’t there before,” he says. “When you have the employment picture we have, with record unemployment, if people don’t feel engaged or connected with the organization they work for, they’re going to go elsewhere.”

Nick Burkholder, vice president of staffing assessments and solutions at Bernard Hodes Group, an HR communications company in New York, agrees. Communication is “even more critical now as our organizations face these incredible staffing challenges,” he says. “There are a lot of indications that employee communication programs can have a direct impact on recruiting, development and retention and, I believe, on productivity too.”

Kathryn Yates, a senior communications consultant at Watson Wyatt & Co. in Chicago has evidence of that impact. She points to Watson Wyatt’s Human Capital Index (HCI), which shows a relationship between the effectiveness of a company’s human capital and the creation of high shareholder returns. Companies with a high HCI have high shareholder value; companies with a low HCI have low shareholder value.

Watson Wyatt’s research of more than 400 U.S.- and Canada-based publicly traded companies found links between communications integrity and value creation in the following situations. (The figure in parentheses is the expected change in market value associated with a significant improvement in HCI.)

  • Employees have easy access to technologies for communicating (1.8 percent).
  • Employees have the opportunity to give ideas and suggestions to senior managers (0.8 percent).
  • Financial information is shared with employees (0.8 percent).
  • Employees have input into how the work gets done (0.4 percent).
  • Business plans and goals are shared with employees (0.2 percent).

Yet, despite the value associated with effective employee communication, Lowenthal and others admit that few “companies today would get high marks in employee communication.”

The Role of HR in Communication Measurement

HR can make a difference in the effectiveness of employer-employee communication. While the HR function is not always directly aligned with the communication function in an organization, HR professionals have a vested interest in its success.

By definition the HR function in any organization is responsible for the company’s “human resources.” Whether alone or in concert with the company’s communication function, HR should be involved in measuring how the organization’s communication efforts affect employee recruitment, retention, satisfaction and turnover, say both HR professionals and communication consultants. HR should measure whether benefit communications are clear and result in decisions that benefit employees and the organization. HR also should measure whether corporate messages related to strategic initiatives and goals are being heard and understood by employees to ensure that they are doing the right things and are, ultimately, productive.

But HR can’t do it alone.

As Dan Church, a communications consultant with SWB advertising in Bethlehem, Pa., notes, “There are always two lines of authority for employee communication—one is the HR department, the other is public affairs. What I’ve seen over the last five or six years is a push and pull back and forth in which HR, generally, has been assigned benefits communication, while public affairs is trying to stake out turf in strategic employee communication.”

But, at Delaware North Companies Inc., in Buffalo, N.Y., Lisa Hawken, an organizational development consultant in the HR department, and Mary Burich, manager of internal communications, have formed an alliance to focus on all employee communication.

Delaware North is a food service, retail, recreation and hospitality management company that operates at sports venues, airports, state and national parks and major tourist attractions. With operations in the United States, Canada and the Pacific Rim, Delaware North has employees in 110 locations. Effective communication is key to the organization’s ongoing success.

“Although we [HR professionals] are pretty good at a lot of the employee relations issues, communication is another whole spectrum,” says Hawken. “I tell Mary every day how glad I am that we have her. When you can build a partnership, you’ll do very well.”

Hawken adds that it’s important to remember that, whether or not HR has direct line accountability for employee communication, it is possible—and advisable—to successfully partner with others in the organization who do have that accountability.

What Types of Communication Should HR Measure?

Corporate communication needs vary; so do the types of measurement. Measurements can range from broad to narrow, from formal to informal and from qualitative to quantitative.

Delaware North uses a broad, quantitative climate/culture survey provided through the Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco (www.greatplacetowork.com). While the survey didn’t focus exclusively on communication, some specific items related to communication issues were: “Management keeps me informed about important issues and changes,” “Management makes its expectations clear,” “I can ask any reasonable question and get a straight answer,” “Management is approachable” and “Management genuinely seeks and responds to suggestions and ideas.”

Based on the information gleaned from this survey, Delaware North formed a group to concentrate specifically on communication throughout the corporation and, Hawken says, the organization will be able to “implement rather quickly” the list of recommendations the team developed. She adds, “We’re going to measure again early next year.”

“There are different aspects of communication you can measure,” Sinickas says. “If your audience received the message, if they understood what they read or heard, if they actually believe it and what actions they took based on the communication they received.” Most importantly, she adds, “You can measure the organizational outcomes related to these actions.”

The measurement of employee communication has evolved, Yates says. “Past practice in communication measurement focused on ‘nice to know’ or more qualitative than quantitative measures.”

Today, she says, communicators “should be working to show a clear relationship between the effect of their efforts and the creation of tangible results.” Those results, she says, “could be as clear as correlation with shareholder return or, depending on a company’s business strategy, the reduced turnover of high potentials.”

Answers to questions such as “How frequent is the communication you get from your manager?” are good to know, Yates says. “But they don’t tell me what the impact of communication is on productivity, on retention, on some of the core business results that communication should be supporting.” Yates would prefer to phrase the question as, “Do you receive the information you need to help you perform your job effectively?”

“I always counsel HR communication people to start with the result in mind,” she says.

Sinickas advises this same approach, counseling clients to work backward from their communication goal, looking at issues such as:

  • What actions do employees need to take to help you meet your goal?
  • What do they need to know, or what do they need to believe, in order to take those actions?
  • What messages were sent with information the employees needed to know or believe?
  • Were the channels used for those messages considered credible by employees?

Ideally, says Sinickas, each stage of the communication process would be measured. Often, however, communicators “don’t think about measurement until they’re in the middle of the communication process or when they’re done,” she says. “That’s too late.” Instead, Sinickas stresses, “Think about measurement during an objective setting. Think about how you will know that your efforts have been successful.”

What About Informal Measurement Systems?

HR professionals don’t take the time or make the effort to measure the effectiveness of organizational communication efforts for a variety of reasons. “People are really stretched,” Sinickas admits. “Thinking about taking on one more set of responsibilities is overwhelming.”

Cost also can be a factor, and smaller organizations may not have the financial resources available to conduct large-scale, formal communication surveys.

“You don’t have to go out and pay a lot of money for a survey,” Hawken says. You can conduct your own focus groups. “If you have somebody with good facilitation skills, pick a random sample of employees, put them in a room together and ask a set of questions,” she says. “That can be a good, qualitative indicator.”

When Hawken conducts focus groups she asks employees to rate various statements on a scale of 1-5 and then shares their ratings. Discussion follows. “It’s not so much the ratings that matter, as what people will tell you,” she says. “They give you information about the things you can fix.”

“From our perspective,” says Bramson, “the best way to measure the effectiveness of communication is really two-fold. One is the level of employee discontent. When employees aren’t getting information there’s a lot of water cooler angst and a lot of rumors.

“The second way that we know if communication is successful is when associates feed back to us the information we’re giving them,” Bramson continues. “Then we know that it’s being read and digested.”

Another informal way to measure communication is to keep your eyes peeled and be an objective observer. “Communication is not just written or verbal, it’s also behavioral,” says Lowenthal. “You can measure that by watching the behavior of direct reports and the behavior of people who you come into contact with regularly.”

While Sinickas agrees that measurement efforts don’t always have to be complex or expensive, she urges caution when relying on informal feedback. “Very often in HR,” she says, “most of the people you hear from are complainers. They’re the ones who call, send e-mails or drop in. It’s too easy to have your perceptions skewed about what’s really going on out there with the rest of your employees.”

Sinickas also points out that measurement doesn’t require a survey. She gives an example of a quiz she used with one client to determine the employees’ level of understanding of a specific issue. “People love quizzes,” she says, “especially when they can immediately see the answer.” In this case, she says, the quiz resulted in a 50 percent response rate—a very high result—perhaps because the questions were short and fun, but still relevant. “It’s a fun thing to do,” and, she adds, “it’s a wonderfully scientific measurement.”

Using Measurement to Implement Change

Measurements provide little value unless they are used to make improvements in the communication process.

Sinickas gives an example of research done to determine how communication affected employee choice of medical plans. Such choices, she points out, can have a clear, bottom-line impact on the organization. And, she says, “Various measurements can be used to compare the impact of specific communication efforts. We can measure the specific messages we sent out about making medical plan choices. We can quantify which channels we use and how frequently. We can do an employee survey and find out if employees understand certain things like the difference between a PPO [preferred provider organization] and an HMO [health maintenance organization.] We can measure employee attitudes. In terms of employee behaviors, we can track which plans are chosen.”

Ultimately, she says, the final measurement is: “Did we actually reduce the rate that our health care costs increased this year?” That’s how communication gets tied to the bottom line.

Measurement also can be used to select one communication tool over another or to prove the positive impact of a specific communication approach. Managers are often hesitant, Sinickas says, to hold benefit plan review meetings, for instance, because of the perception that these meetings hinder productivity. To test this theory, Sinickas is involved in a project where she will be helping a client compare productivity at locations that hold meetings with productivity at locations that don’t hold meetings.

“Our guess is there is going to be more loss of productivity in places where they don’t have meetings because people are more likely to talk among themselves,” she says, creating more opportunities for misinformation to spread.

The same client is tracking the impact of various communication vehicles related to a retirement plan change on subsequent calls to the company’s call center. The goal in this case, she says, is to “make the communication so clear that employees don’t need to call.”

The variety of ways in which HR professionals and their communication colleagues are using measurement to substantiate and to improve the value of communication shows that, indeed, communication can and should be measured, Sinickas says.

“If you aren’t measuring it, then the message is that it doesn’t matter,” Hawken says. “Data drives decisions. Measurement provides the business case. Measurement provides the good business reason to communicate effectively with employees.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999), and director of corporate communications at Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System, in Eau Claire, Wis.

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