Doing Town Hall Meetings Better

Town hall meetings enable senior leadership to keep employees informed, engaged and in sync with business goals.

By Nancy Hatch Woodward Dec 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, December 2006

At his company’s quarterly town hall meetings, Adam Rizika enjoys seeing his CEO, Dick Harrison, in action. “He likes people to come out with difficult questions, and he likes responding to them ad lib,” says the director of marketing, Asia-Pacific, for Parametric Technology Corp., a software company in Needham, Mass. “He can also talk in incredible detail about what our competitors are doing and how we are approaching them. When you hear him talking, you say, ‘Hey, we are on top of this.’ ”

Outlining important company developments and responses to competitors are just a few of the many benefits companies can realize from conducting town hall meetings. These meetings also can lead, for example, to greater employee understanding of key business issues and can provide increased employee feedback up the hierarchical ladder.

The resulting boost to employee communication efforts in turn can positively affect an organization in many ways—including potentially boosting its bottom line. The 2005/2006 Communication ROI Study sponsored by Watson Wyatt, a global consulting firm specializing in human capital and financial management, found that companies with the most effective communication programs financially outperformed those with less effective programs by 57 percent from 2000 to 2004.

Furthermore, a 2005 study of more than 18,000 employees by Towers Perrin, a global professional services firm, found that surveyed employees “identify senior leadership communication as one of the most important elements of communication effectiveness overall,” says Katherine Woodall, one of the chief architects of the study and a principal in Towers Perrin’s HR services area.

But for senior leaders to reap the many benefits of effectively communicating in town hall meetings, the meetings need to be conducted in a manner that employees will see as respectful, believable and honest.

The Benefits of Being Seen and Heard

A key benefit of town hall meetings is that they hold an audience’s attention better than other forms of communication, experts say.

Humans are hard-wired to look at body language and facial expressions and engage in two-way communication, says Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communications in Concord, Calif.

That view is supported by a 2003 international study on communications in business by Tandberg, a global videoconferencing company, and the RoperASW marketing research firm. The study found that only 23 percent of people pay full attention when listening to audio meetings, while 55 percent pay full attention in face-to-face meetings.

In addition, respondents said that, in their view, face-to-face communication:

  • Builds high trust (90 percent).
  • Is more personal (87 percent).
  • Reduces confusion and misunderstanding (81 percent).
  • Is easier to understand (76 percent).

The fact that town hall meetings can build trust and underscore a presenter’s credibility is vital for effective executive communications.

Julie Freeman, president of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), says that being able to see the person who is talking helps build acceptance and credibility for the speaker’s message. In fact, the result is essentially the same even when the presentation is broadcast, she says, as long as the speaker’s facial expressions can be seen and his or her tone of voice can be heard.

Another plus to town hall meetings is that employees can ask questions and try to influence an organization’s decisions, Holtz says. “A town hall meeting allows the audience to express their opinions. Leadership has lots of channels to get content and information from the top down. Rank and file has very few avenues. The whole idea behind the town meeting is to facilitate that bottom-up communication.”

Adds Laure Henrichsen, consumer public relations manager for American Greetings Corp., a greeting card company in Cleveland that holds town meetings: “Town halls allow the company’s leadership to hear a variety of perspectives, connect at a grassroots level and learn more about the nitty-gritty issues occurring at the department level.”

Building A Two-Way Street

To gain these benefits, town hall meetings must be conducted as a dialogue, not a monologue, says John Guiniven, associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, N.C. Often in such meetings, the CEO comes out and talks about the goals for the coming year and how everyone needs to get on board. When he or she asks for questions, there are few takers.

That’s because people feel intimidated and don’t want to appear as if they aren’t team members, Guiniven says. “It’s important to remember it is very intimidating to deal with the CEO if you aren’t a junior CEO yourself,” he says.

If a senior leader walks out of a town hall meeting saying that the employees “love us,” something went wrong, Guiniven says. “If no one said anything negative, if nobody had a chance to vent, then it was a failure. The speakers need to leave feeling better informed than when they came in.”

The Importance of Being Earnest

A successful dialogue between company leaders and employees will depend largely on how speakers convey key attributes, such as concern and honesty.

“We are really lucky,” says Jacqueline Strayer, vice president, corporate communications, at Arrow Electronics. “Our CEO is a great speaker who cares about these meetings. Your senior leadership really has to care about how they present themselves.”

While it’s good for the CEO to be long on charisma, it’s more important for the person to be sincere, says professor Guiniven. “Employees can discern honesty,” he says. “Someone who is stumbling a bit, flubbing some lines, but is honest is going to come across a lot better than someone who is glib.”

That doesn’t mean your speakers shouldn’t try to improve their communication skills. People can develop better speaking styles with practice and coaching, says Freeman, even though not everyone is going to become a great inspirational speaker. And since your CEO is the public face of your company, investing in communication training for your senior executive could pay off in improved external communications as well.

Developing a Dialogue

In general, creating a genuine dialogue between employees and top leaders begins with trust. (For more information about building employee trust, see “Do They Trust You?” in the June 2006 issue of HR Magazine.) Employees need to feel they are taken seriously, respected and trusted by leadership, which means leadership has to be willing to share information and answer questions, Holtz says.

To encourage dialogue with employees, Guiniven suggests throwing out the staid presentation that usually precedes the questions/discussion segment. Instead, he advises, have employees send in questions ahead of time. Then, after your speakers introduce themselves—and they should introduce themselves, because some employees may have no idea who they are—they should randomly choose two or three questions to discuss.

Don’t be surprised if some employees regard the meetings with skepticism. Guiniven has spoken to employees at 14 organizations about town hall meetings and has been struck by the number of employees who believe their company screens the questions ahead of time or that their employer has “checked the handwriting” of the questions to see who wrote them. Even though Guiniven has never found this to be the case, he says he has encountered “tremendous paranoia, stretching up to the supervisory level.”

Experts say that by using some simple strategies, employers can help mitigate employees’ feelings of mistrust. If soliciting questions ahead of time, allow employees to submit queries anonymously and let them know that questions will not be edited, except for length.

Also, allow written questions from the floor, since some employees may not be comfortable standing up in front of a large crowd to voice their opinions and concerns. The questions should be gathered and presented to the speaker by someone in the audience who has been chosen randomly, says Freeman.

And don’t forget about employees who are participating remotely. For employees who are watching online, set up phone lines for call-in questions.

The Value Of Following Through

Creating an atmosphere where employees can ask questions can present a downside: not enough time to answer all of them. “We try to work in all the questions, even if we have to run a little overtime, because we believe it’s not a good message to employees to have a bunch of questions still lingering,” says Nicole Rowe, director of global corporate communications for Parametric Technology. The second half of the company’s one-hour town hall meeting, plus any overtime, is devoted to questions.

Still, not all companies have that luxury. Sometimes, employees have more questions or ideas in the days following the town hall. Providing an opportunity for workers to submit them afterward is a good idea—as long as someone follows up.

Some questions are best answered personally, but if a large number of employees have similar questions, it may be helpful to answer them in the company newsletter. Holtz notes that one client, a major food and beverage company, has its communications team record sessions with the CEO after the meetings, where he answers questions they didn’t have time for in the town hall meeting.

Also, it’s advisable to have someone take notes during the meeting on what is said or promised. After executives at United Rentals Inc.—a provider of commercial and industrial equipment, based in Greenwich, Conn.—completed a town hall tour of all the organization’s branches, the company initiated several changes based on what management learned in those meetings. The company implemented a peer review process, changed both its short-term disability policy and its 401(k) match, and set up a more formal performance review process that focused on career opportunities for hourly employees. (For more on how United Rentals handled its town hall tour, see sidebar “Town Hall Meetings on the Road”.)

Neglecting to follow through can have serious consequences, including damaging employee morale. “People can get very cynical if they come to these meetings and leadership promises to follow up on certain ideas but never does,” says Guiniven. He cites a manufacturing company whose CEO promised mill workers during a town hall meeting that he would have another water fountain installed closer to their work area. Unfortunately, no one did anything afterward, and three weeks later there was a strike at that plant, which occurred, in part, because employees were frustrated with management’s inaction.

Some companies do follow-up surveys to evaluate the effectiveness of their town hall meetings. Reader’s Digest, which won a 2006 IABC Gold Quill Award for communications excellence for its global town hall meeting, did that following its meeting, which reached 4,700 employees in more than 20 countries. Its follow-up survey found that 89 percent of employees said their questions were addressed in the town hall meeting, and 95 percent said the meeting helped them understand the company’s business direction.

United Rentals’ Craig Pintoff, vice president of HR, says the company saw tangible results from its town hall meetings, too. “After the town meeting, 80 percent of our employees completed our employee engagement survey, where we measure their satisfaction with the workplace and the key drivers. Before the town halls, only 40 percent of our employees completed it. That’s significant progress.”

Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelance writer based in Tennessee and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine .

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