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Getting employees and top management together in a casual setting can foster understanding and improve communications.
Employees at the Lodge at Vail are instructed to treat guests like treasured friends, anticipating and meeting their needs with the hope that they return season after season. HR director Mandy Wulfe’s job is to ensure that the Vail, Colo., hotel’s 280 workers feel the same way about their employer.
To bolster employee relations, Wulfe and her boss, hotel manager Wolfgang Triebnig, last spring started a “lunch with the boss” program to give each employee the opportunity to interact with Triebnig in a casual setting. First, she quizzed other HR practitioners.
“I learned about programs that worked and some that didn’t,” says Wulfe. “I was also cautioned to tread lightly because the ‘Dilbert’ cartoon series was satirizing these type of meetings.”
Armed with her findings on successful strategies and potential roadblocks, Wulfe developed “Wolfgang’s Lunch Gang,” a series of monthly employee lunches in which eight staff members are invited to dine with Triebnig in the hotel’s five-star restaurant. Over time, each employee will have a turn at the table.
Having employees meet with executive staff in informal surroundings has plenty of upsides, Wulfe and other HR professionals have found. Whether they’re sit-down breakfasts, conference-room lunches or “town hall” meetings, these events can lubricate employee relations in good times and bad.
But they are not foolproof. Poor planning can turn well-intentioned events into employee relations flops. What must HR do to ensure that casual meetings with the boss are beneficial to both management and employees? Wulfe and others describe their experiences, pointing out what worked—or didn’t work—for them.
Finding the Right Mix
Some HR professionals recommend that meetings with executives be voluntary and open to employees at every level—including managers and non-exempt, part-time, seasonal and teleworking staff. However, Sharon Abrams, HR manager for the Newark, Del., office of BE&K, excludes management staff from the company’s quarterly lunches with Bob Pinson, general manager of the Birmingham-based engineering and construction firm. Pinson facilitates the meetings himself.
“Even though managers may have a great relationship with their staff, their presence in these meetings can set up barriers,” she says. “Employees may not want to speak up for fear of making their managers look bad, or [they] may be reticent because they always want to put their best foot forward. With no supervisors present, employees can shoot from the hip.”
Wendy Hopkins, manager of employee communications for Shell Lubricants in Houston, grouped attendees by building floor, keeping departments together, at the company’s “open house” meetings with former CEO Jim Postl, who retired recently. “People are more willing to ask questions when they feel supported by others in their work group,” she says.
Wulfe prefers to populate her lunch group with people from different departments. “In a small group, if one person has a negative idea, it’s tempting for a co-worker to build on it, creating a negative feedback loop. By bringing in a mixed group we also create an opportunity for employees to get to know each other better.”
In addition to the mix of employees, the number of people to include is a key decision that may depend on a variety of factors, such as the size of your workforce and your goals for the session. Other variables include how often and where sessions are held.
Wulfe has found that a group of eight works very well for an intimate round-table lunch at the hotel, she says.
Hopkins opted for a larger gathering—50 to 100 employees—in a large room with a conferencing system that allowed offsite staff to call in. The mood was informal; Postl often sat casually on a table up front. “The atmosphere [was] something like a talk show, with people posing questions and Jim taking calls,” Hopkins says.
Both Wulfe and Abrams hand-select participants, aiming for a dynamic blend of outspoken and reserved people. And both keep careful logs to make sure everyone’s turn comes around.
“I try to include three or four whom I know have strong opinions,” says Abrams, who brings together 15-20 employees at BE&K’s quarterly lunches with Pinson.
“With a group this size, I can control the level of the discussion, making sure we don’t get bogged down in minutiae, and I really can make personal contact with them,” says Pinson. He also encourages employees “to go back and share with co-workers what we talked about. Trickle-down is part of the benefit of these meetings.”
Let Employees Lead
At the Lodge at Vail, the lunch discussion is freewheeling, with no agenda. Triebnig asks participants to introduce themselves and to share any comments or concerns.
“Wolfgang is very good at addressing their questions and issues, so it never turns into a gripefest. These events help staff see him as a trustworthy guy—someone they can talk to as an equal.”
Even if you’re worried about whether employees will speak up, don’t prepare an agenda or create a formal question-and-answer session, Wulfe warns. Instead, give the boss some icebreaker questions, such as, “If you were in my shoes, what changes would you make within the company?” Then let the employees steer the conversation.
“When we first started the lunches with [Triebnig], I tried using a flip chart to organize the discussion, but we quickly did away with it,” she recalls.
“We’ve learned to let the employees lead,” Wulfe says. Some come prepared with questions, some come because they were invited and prefer to listen quietly, and some are moved to ask questions because of what they are hearing. I’m always surprised by which people will talk and what they have to say.”
Food is always a nice touch, with breakfast and lunch being the most popular settings for such meetings. But make sure the catering is high quality to demonstrate the employees’ value to the company. BE&K serves the same type of meal to staff as it does to clients, says Abrams.
Timing can also be a factor—later in the day, and later in the week, may find staff more relaxed and chatty.
Although it is important to encourage employees to speak freely, you must make it clear that their suggestions may not equal action. Explain how you will respond to suggestions, and then make sure you follow through. If the boss is unable to resolve an issue, explain why.
Even if employees’ ideas are not adopted, they may be relieved just to get a chance to be heard. For example, when Rachel Trujillo, a housekeeper at the Lodge at Vail, attended her first lunch with Triebnig a few months ago, she raised questions about the number of rooms housekeepers had to clean. Even though she knew there was probably no recourse, “it didn’t matter—it was nice to be heard and to get some feedback about the situation,” she says.
The key is to listen and respond to employees’ concerns honestly, Wulfe says. “If you can’t change something, tell them why.”
It may be wise to establish ground rules up front. For example, you could state that complaints about individuals are not allowed, or that raised voices and abusive language are not acceptable—if you feel the audience merits such a warning.
But attendees also should understand that there are no off-limit topics, as scary as that might be for the executive in the hot seat.
“When you are trying to set up an open-communication forum, honesty is sacred; nothing can be out-of-bounds,” Hopkins says. “We’ve never had any really negative interactions.” The open discussion format helps control damaging gossip, she says.
Many employees agree that Postl’s town meetings were useful to both sides, says Claire Moore, a senior business analyst in the company’s automotive consumer products information technology group. “We were able to get a feel for him and his motivations from a business perspective, and it seemed that he was becoming more aware of the types of struggles lower-level employees go through,” she says. Also, workers appreciated the chance to let off steam sparked by routine gossip and chitchat.
“We had an incident where payroll checks were paid on a Friday instead of Thursday, and that spawned a rumor the company couldn’t make payroll,” Hopkins recalls. At an open house meeting, Postl explained that it was simply a glitch in the computer system. “Hearing the rumor and addressing it directly helped us all begin to see the real benefit of these meetings,” Hopkins says.
However, some employees do not trust the executive staff, so, for them, the meetings were not beneficial, Moore admits.
Sometimes employees ask Pinson questions they have already asked their supervisors to see if they get the same answers—and they probe further if they don’t, Abrams says. “We see this as a way to build trust within the organization.”
Another way to improve trust is to follow up quickly and thoroughly, Hopkins says.
“After a meeting you absolutely have to get all the questions answered, starting on that day,” she says. For example, executives could send e-mail responses directly to employees or send a memo to participants that reviews their concerns and outlines the next steps. “If you have a commitment from leadership, this can be done,” Hopkins says.
The Lodge at Vail responds quickly to issues raised at the lunches, Wulfe says. “One of our room staff asked when we would be providing van transportation early in the morning, like we do for the later morning shift. [Triebnig’s] response was that he would look into it, and now it’s in place,” she says.
Sometimes no action is required, but discussions alleviate employees’ concerns. For example, the hotel has been struggling with a computer upgrade for more than a year, and “there are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes related to this project,” Wulfe says. “I think the employees have been more patient than expected because we can answer their questions at our informal meetings. It breeds understanding.”
Occasionally, the meetings also can be purely social. Front desk manager Pia Hardwicke attended Triebnig’s recent lunch just for management staff. “I thought it was very useful to sit with the managers and get to know each other—and him—in a different way,” Hardwicke says. “He talked about his job, his early hotel experiences, things we never have time to talk about. It was a valuable social interaction.”
These face-to-face sessions will naturally go more smoothly if your CEO or president has a good rapport with people. A little role playing and drilling with a trainer in advance can help those who might tend to ramble, dominate the discussion or become defensive.
“The only way to do this is to get your feet wet,” says Postl. “The first time I faced employees was in a town hall meeting where I was reading anonymous questions. Some were pretty hairy, but you have to step back and ask yourself, ‘Who better than the CEO to talk about the sticky issues and answer the tough questions?’” Postl made it clear from the first meeting that he was willing to answer any question but would not respond to personal diatribes. “After a few meetings, those type of questions just stopped.”
An HR professional’s involvement beyond planning and administration may not be necessary or even welcomed at these events, Hopkins says. The public affairs department manages the open houses at Shell Lubricants, and HR attends only sporadically.
“At first we had our HR person attend every session because 95 percent of the questions asked dealt with human resource matters,” says Hopkins. “But employees are now bringing up issues that span the entire organization. So we are just as likely to have the [chief information officer] or CFO there.”
Abrams does not attend the meetings at BE&K because she doesn’t want to inhibit discussion, she says.
However, Wulfe does attend the sessions with Triebnig, but she tries to stay in the background. She also takes notes. “It’s his show; I just facilitate and administrate,” she says.
Meetings with the boss can solidify your employees’ commitment to company culture and mission, and talking with executives about industry news and business strategies helps staff feel involved. But these meetings cannot fix a company that’s not performing, Postl says.
“These interactions can’t be a Band-Aid for companies that aren’t delivering what employees expect,” he says. Nor can these meetings replace any other form of employee communication. “This is only one piece of strong corporate culture,” he says.
Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
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