How to Facilitate Effective Communication Between Management and Employees

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The first thing I would suggest is have an open door process where employees feel safe to voice their opinion.  There should be many avenues where employees can go to express their views. While most organizations have an open door process, not all have a process in place which facilitates open communication and the minimization of fear. Most open door systems encourage employees to first escalate their concerns to their Supervisors. If they choose another channel they are redirected to their Manager. While it is important to encourage employees to work it out with their Manager, the reality is that not all employees are comfortable doing so. Thus they should have the right to escalate their concerns to other people identified as part of the open door process and not feel penalized for doing so.  Employees should know who they can reach out to and what the open door process means.

The key element of an open door process is that it should not lead to further injustice in the workplace. While some Leaders are excellent in resolving their employees concerns, others may make life more difficult for them. Thus, there should also be a way for employees to confidentially voice their concerns without having to attach their name to it. This will in turn allow those being treated unfairly to come forward and have their voices heard. For example, organizations can use an employee survey, an employee hotline and/or an employee advocate who has been elected by employees to represent their needs. The more in tune organizations are with employees and their primary motivations, the more they will be able to adapt the organization to attract and retain key talent while increasing levels of engagement, job satisfaction and performance.

Leaders in the organization should be educated about the open door process and why it is critical for employees to be given the right to raise their concerns using the channel of their choice. It should be emphasized that the cost of an ineffective open door process can translate into more costly measures. This may include lost business, low motivation, poor performance, a negative view of the company and management, high turnover and unionization. Remember those who raise concerns are typically those who care enough about their job and the organization itself to want to see resolve. Therefore these employees should not be punished but rather encouraged to bring forth their concerns in order to create a healthier work environment. If an employee in your department does not feel comfortable coming to you directly, do not take it personally. Instead, reflect on why this may be and take comfort in knowing that at least the concern has surfaced before resulting in the more costly factors mentioned above.

Okay, now let us imagine that the right process is in place to facilitate communication within the organization and that an employee brings their concern to you. How should respond to this situation? Here are some helpful tips:

Always thank someone for coming forward with their concern. It takes a lot of courage to come forward and by thanking them you show your openness to helping and that you appreciate them sharing their inner most thoughts. Show that you are making the employee a top priority by clearing away any distractions (i.e. do not pick up any calls, close your door so there are no interruptions and do not check any e-mails). If it is not a good time, reschedule to a time when you know you can fully devote your time and attention.

Next, take time to actively listen. Active listening involves maintaining eye contact, paraphrasing what the individual has said to make sure you understood them correctly, asking questions (i.e. how did this make you feel? or what have you tried? or what do you think would help?) and making sure your body language is open. After all 70% of our communication is non verbal so if your body language spells disinterest the employee will quickly slip away and raise their concerns with someone they feel more comfortable with. Remember being an effective listener and Leader means getting to root of people’s concerns by asking the right questions and helping them to reflect within themselves.  Most people feel an immense sense of relief when they are listened to. This relief comes from being able to safely share what is on their mind with someone who genuinely cares and wants to take the time to help and hear them out. From my experience, most people feel being listened to reduces their anxiety and makes them feel valued. Sometimes this is all an employees needs to help them find answers to their own problems within themselves. Helping people to a solution can be incredibly empowering for them.

Thirdly, if an employee wants you to resolve their concern, make sure you gain a sense of what they believe would be a fair resolve. This way when you do come to a resolution you can keep this in mind and try to find a solution that taps into what really motivates the individual if appropriate. If the issue involves another employee, always explain that this will require speaking to the other party and the witnesses identified to understand the situation in its entirety. As an HR professional/Leader you are there to remain impartial and make a decision based on the facts. Often I have found that when investigating employee concerns the outcome changes dramatically when you hear all sides of the story. Therefore, it is imperative not to jump to conclusions by pronouncing an employee guilty before all the facts have been presented. Remember every employee deserves a fair trial.

Fourth, when interviewing each party, make sure you read back what they have said and have them sign the statement to verify that it is correct. This will prevent the possibility of statements changing. Never share what other parties in the investigation have said or mention names unless absolutely required. This will take away their confidence in the open door process. Clearly if there is a concern with harassment for example where one employee is accusing another of harassment at work, then you will need to state who has brought this concern forward. However before doing so make sure the employee who raised the concern is aware of this and of how this will affect your ability to resolve their concern. Once the employees has approved, start your interview with the other party by stating the concern generally, then get the other party to discuss their side of the story. Do your best not to ask leading questions which will bias their answers. Then proceed to interview witnesses to validate information or to bring new facts to light. Remember if there is harassment or violence which occurs off company property, you should always encourage the employee to contact the police.

Fifth, no matter how big or small the concern is in your mind, if an employee has come to you in confidence it is important to them. This is why it is imperative to communicate what is being done to resolve the concern. The general rule is to get back to someone within 24 hours as to what you have done so far and to try and resolve their concern within a week. The longer the concern is left without resolve and communication, the more devalued an employee will feel, as they will assume that no one cares. This will deter this employee as well as other employees from expressing their concerns in future, especially if news spreads that nothing was done to resolve the issue. So remember whether the resolution is in the person’s favour or not, communication on what the outcome is, is key. Always make sure you communicate the rationale behind the decisions made as this will impact the employees’ perception of fairness.

Lastly, when making a final decision on how to resolve the issue, look at the facts and how HR has resolved similar concerns in the past. Consistency in how concerns are resolved is essential in ensuring fairness and making employees feel as though there was due process. Use the progressive disciplinary system to manage performance. Discipline should remain confidential and should be well documented. If nothing can be done due to lack of hard facts (i.e. it is a she said versus he said scenario), conduct a coaching with each employee on what the expectations are and what the consequences are for this type of behaviour. If an employee comes forward confidentially about their Manager and would like this feedback to be shared with their boss without attaching their name, make sure you do so. Research shows that often employees leave due to poor leadership. Creating awareness allows Leaders to self reflect and improve in order to motivate and retain their teams before it is too late.

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