HR and the Communicators

By Jun 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, June 2003 Leaving communications to the professionals can be a strategic move that benefits the business.

Sometimes, a company’s biggest hurdle to effectively communicating with employees is a lack of attention to properly managing the content or distribution of the message. Consider the following examples of communications gone wrong:

  • Many employees at a major Midwestern energy company first learned of the organization’s merger plans not from internal corporate sources—such as HR, a corporate announcement or their individual managers—but from a radio news broadcast they heard while driving to work.

  • When a small publishing company implemented a peer evaluation process for employees, the first time many heard about it was when co-workers started making casual comments about having received “a survey about you.” HR expected managers to tell their employees; managers thought HR would “take care of it.”

Do such communication “glitches” have a negative impact on employee trust, commitment and loyalty? Many communications and HR professionals say yes.

Those opinions are backed up by a study by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. The study, “WorkUSA 2000,” surveyed 7,500 U.S. workers at all job levels and in all major industry sectors about their attitudes toward their workplaces and their employers. Results showed a clear link between organizational success and a management culture that encourages employee involvement and communicates effectively with employees.

Clearly, there is a cost to failed and inadequate communication initiatives. And there is an incentive to manage communication efforts so as to maximize their effect. But who should do the managing? Human resources, which is the organizational function most concerned with employee needs? Or the internal corporate communications department, whose members are the company’s professional communicators?

Many HR and communications professionals contend that communication efforts should be centralized—and separate from HR.

The Pluses Of Being Apart

One person who favors separation of the functions is Garry Griffiths, executive vice president of HR for American Management Systems, a business and information technology consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. Griffiths says: “Too many organizations fall into the trap of considering internal communication a function of HR. It is not. It’s a strategic business partnership.”

The “HR machine,” Griffiths says, “is like an iceberg. Most of what takes place is underwater and doesn’t do any good for anybody unless it’s communicated.” That communication, he maintains, should be the purview of professional communicators, not HR staff members.

Unisys Corp.—a worldwide information technology company based in Blue Bell, Pa.—is one of many organizations that prefer to keep HR and internal communications functions separate. Eight years ago, when employee communication was housed in HR, Shirley Robinson was part of the HR team and reported to Dave Aker, senior vice president of worldwide human resources. Today, Robinson is vice president of internal communications and reports to the vice president of corporate communication. She coordinates communication for all functions at Unisys, including marketing, IT, legal and finance as well as HR.

Separating the communication and HR functions has benefited HR, says Aker. “We get connected to the other channels of communication in the company. When we’re talking about advertising or branding or public relations, the employee message is considered and incorporated as well. We in HR benefit from the leverage of the various channels that are used by the employee communication organization, as opposed to the single approach we were taking before.”

Kurt Halvorson, chief administrative officer at Omaha-based Ameritrade, the online securities brokerage, says that when communication staff members report to HR, the arrangement may strengthen communication to employees at the expense of underemphasizing the organization’s other communication needs.

At Ameritrade, HR—which reports to Halvorson—and corporate communications director Donna Kush have long had informal links but separate reporting structures. Following a 2001 corporate reorganization, they remain apart but now are linked by a dotted line on the organizational chart.

Despite the separate structures, corporate communications now has a closer relationship with HR—as well as other key areas of the organization. The new relationship helps to ensure consistency of “voice” with all stakeholders, according to both Kush and Halvorson, and has proven efficient.

“It’s much more effective to have corporate communications separate from HR,” says Halvorson, because “there are so many other important liaisons with areas like finance, with marketing and with the CEO.”

Like others, Halvorson sees a benefit in keeping HR and communications separate. “There’s a kind of innate different perspective that each brings to the process,” he says. “Donna will see things that I’m myopically blind to because I deal with them all the time. Similarly, Donna will bring things to me from the communications side and say, ‘Can I get an HR perspective on this?’ I think there’s a nice balance and a nice benefit there in terms of the professional oversight that we can each provide the other’s group.”

Both Halvorson and Kush say each side respects the other’s expertise and both sides work together to achieve the company’s mission. “The fact that we sit about 25 steps from each other helps quite a bit,” Halvorson adds, “and that’s not by accident; that’s by design.”

Says Charlene Wheeless, senior vice president of global communication and marketing at American Management Systems: “We all can get so focused on the work that is right in front of us that it’s very helpful to have that partner that can take a step back and say, ‘Let’s look at this in terms of the business strategy.’ ”

Clarity and Consistency

Consultant John G. Clemons, president of Clemons Communication in Leesburg, Va., has done company communications both ways—through HR and as part of a separate communications function. He says that when the communication function operates through HR, “communication has a tendency to not be as pure because HR is introducing their own perspectives into the communications.” It’s difficult for the communication professional in this situation to “provide pure, unfettered, uncluttered communications,” he says.

“Quite honestly,” Clemons continues, “I believe it works better, and there is a better alignment, when the communication function reports directly to a senior communicator.”

Scott Mall of Alpharetta, Ga., also believes HR and internal communications work better when they are separated. Mall, a consultant and lecturer, is a former vice president of marketing and corporate communication at Ryder System Inc., a transportation management company based in Miami.

Mall says that when he joined Ryder in 1999, he found a fragmented communication function, where, for example, investor relations reported to the CFO and the employee communication function reported to HR. Before he left Ryder in 2002, all communication functions, including employee communications, reported to him. The reason for centralizing communication was “to control the message with all audiences,” says Mall.

But the unified communication function still worked to help HR, says Mall. “We worked closely with the VP of benefits and acted as her communications advisers, helping her with messages and documents and ensuring that the printed materials had the same look and feel as other employee communications.” That consistency and attention to detail, says Mall, is a critical part of “internal branding.”

Professional communicators can work most efficiently, says Mall, when they are able to take the same general messages and craft them to meet the needs of various audiences. The basic content remains the same, he says, but the focus and the language may shift depending on whether the message is going to employees or some other audience.

That’s important because employees make up just one of several important potential audiences that a company may need to address. (Others include current customers, prospective customers, shareholders, regulators, legislators, media and the external community.)

When Separation Isn't Feasible

Of course, not all organizations can keep communication functions apart from HR. Organizations in which employee communication reports through HR may simply need to find ways to ensure a broader perspective and close alignment with other organizational communication functions.

That’s what Joyce LaValle and Amanda Henson have done at Atlanta-based Interface Inc., a global carpet and textiles manufacturer. LaValle is senior vice president for human services, and Henson, who reports to LaValle, heads the internal communications function.

Recognizing that Henson’s close alignment with the HR function could isolate her role from the rest of the organization, LaValle came up with an innovative approach—a “virtual team” of individuals assigned by each business unit to work on the internal communications team.

“Traditionally,” says Henson, “you have people who are responsible specifically for communicating to the company. But here we’ve pulled other people together who have jobs in marketing and we’ve added internal communication—and accountability—to their job responsibilities.”

Team members gather weekly via a conference call, Henson says, and that results in critical sharing of information. She says the structure has helped her stay connected and learn about the various business units and their individual communication needs.

Keys to Successful Partnership

As the relationship between Henson and LaValle shows, with a little creativity and effort, it can work well when internal communicators report to HR. For such situations, HR professionals and internal communicators offer these tips that can help ensure both functions work effectively together and achieve their strategic potential:

Make structure secondary. It’s critical to focus on communication needs and make the formal structure secondary, says Brad Whitworth, communications manager for Hewlett-Packard’s Personal Systems Group in Cupertino, Calif. Whitworth has been responsible for internal communications both within an HR structure and through a separate channel. Regardless of how your organization is set up, he says, “the challenge is to put the organizational structure in the background and put information needs first.”

Mall agrees. Companies that don’t have a centralized structure like Ryder’s should focus on the message, he advises. “Forget about where the function resides, but use the communication staff and their expertise to help develop the entire package—the message, how the message is going to be delivered and what the message will look like.”

Share values and vision. Referring to both HR and corporate communications, Halvorson says: “Make sure that you share the same corporate values, the same core values and the same professional standards around what’s important to the organization.”

Says Wheeless: “Communication is all about engaging the employees in achieving the company’s business objectives. Communication and HR are strategic business partners, so everything that we do and everything we put in place is all toward the same goal of achieving the business objectives.”

Talk and listen. “You really can’t say enough about having good communication,” says Kush, emphasizing that it must exist among team members as well as team leaders. “Within our teams there is a lot of integration and really good communication. Team members have to understand each other’s roles very well.”

Clemons agrees. “To have an effective partnership, you have to be willing to be flexible, to listen attentively, to understand each other’s perspectives and viewpoints, and to come to a mutual agreement on a communication solution that will benefit all parties involved.”

Ensure mutual, professional respect. Aker admits that he and his HR colleagues at Unisys probably don’t have the background or expertise to do the job of employee communication as effectively as the communication experts he works with, and Robinson appreciates Aker’s respect for her function.

“I really can’t overemphasize the value of having that endorsement from Dave’s level,” says Robinson. “That makes a statement to all of his direct reports that we are part of the team and not outsiders to be brought in at certain points along the project.”

Kush and Halvorson agree. Corporate communications, says Kush, would never attempt, for example, to define HR benefits. And HR would not attempt to craft its own employee messages without the aid of corporate communications colleagues.

“It’s all about influencing, persuading and capturing hearts and minds,” says Griffiths. “You need a professional communication cadre whose job it is to do that, in the same way it’s HR’s job to formulate policies.”

Aker adds: “You may be a good communicator, but that doesn’t make you a communication professional. That’s an eye-opener. We all fancy ourselves great communicators, but the truth is we can all benefit from the professional communication perspective.”

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 Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).


Web Extras

WorkUSA 2002. Weathering the Storm: A Study of Employee Attitudes and Opinions (Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide)

WorkUSA 2000. Employee Commitment and the Bottom Line (Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide)
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