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Internal communications - the HR connection

In his recently published book, Talking With Your People: A Roadmap to Achieve Better Employee Communications in the Corporate World,Auckland author and communications consultant Ron Murray drew on 20-plus years in communications management in New Zealand to pinpoint where internal communications falls short in organisations - and how it can be improved.


In this abridged excerpt from the book, he focuses on how Human Resources managers and departments in particular need to get close to their internal communications (or communications) advisers and jointly plan employee communications from the outset - and looks at values and wellness as two areas where HR and comms can be particularly active and effective in unison.




As a communications person you quickly get into the habit of talking about your audiences - your publics, your stakeholders€¦call them what you like. Internal comms tends to lump them all under one heading - employees. But€¦there are many shades of difference within the employed ranks of a business or organisation arising from differences in roles, ranking, location, hours worked (part or full time), temporary or permanent status and so on. [As an internal communicator]€¦another way to approach your stakeholders within an organisation is to identify who your "clients" are: who is issuing you with the briefs and instructions to go forth and communicate?


It stands to reason that Human Resources has perhaps the biggest stake in proper comms planning. Their role is to hire people when they're needed, move them on if that's necessary, and ensure they are looked after while they're on the payroll and adhere to organisational policies and values. HR's comms needs are constant - and are heightened at times of change, upheaval or disruption, such as mergers, downsizings, shifts in location, moves to outsourcing of key roles and a host of other business events that involve (and distract) staff.


Business-as-usual requirements include the comms around on-boarding new employees, such as induction, communication of policies and organisational values (more on which below), learning and development activities such as training and performance reviews, and wellness activities - though the last-named can bounce around between HR and Health & Safety.


HR will (or should) provide the greatest chunk of comms activity for the internal comms person, and the relationship will work best when, well before the beginning of the new calendar or financial year, the HR Manager and comms person sit down with HR's "business" plan for the year ahead and identify where comms planning is required. The HR plan of activity should have a sub-section called communications under each prescribed, proposed area of activity. Simple as that. This would spell out who needs to be communicated with, when and on what. If it's known. If the detail isn't clear yet, the plan should identify when it will be - with a trigger date to get going on the comms preparations.


Yet, it often doesn't happen. Or happens piecemeal, or at the last minute. Internal comms should be meeting and talking with HR regularly; they are handmaidens within the organisation. HR doesn't work without robust employee comms planning and activities. And at times of significant workplace disruption, it's about communicating more, more regularly, face-to-face and with a strong emphasis on why the change is happening. You may be faced with massive organisational work to do and have a lean team - but don't skimp on the comms.


Most, if not all, organisations of any size will have the standard internal comms tools and channels operating, including an internal newsletter, an intranet perhaps and hopefully regular all-staff updates. HR should be close to all of them.


There's also plenty of scope for formal comms support for the organisation's onboarding programme. An induction day for groups of new staff is comms through-and-through and can be efficient, informative and fun - or dense, dull and dire. Miles of PowerPoint presentations and a surfeit of talking heads can be an overwhelming, flat introduction to the organisation. Good comms planning will help make it more palatable, manageable and understandable for attendees (and presenters).



Within the HR orbit, one of the most problematic areas to communicate is values - a subset of culture. The best definition of culture within an organisation to me is still "the way we do things around here", and values are the principles and behaviours that underpin that. Values must be real - actual and evident. The other dimension organisations are increasingly focusing on in their values is the "why". Why we do things the way we do them.


Within an organisation, the enduring values are the ones that are second nature to everyone in the business - honesty, respect, diligence€¦whatever they are. The flaky ones are the ones that are claimed to exist but really don't - or aren't honoured by everyone. Organisations are great at formulating a raft of values, maybe arrived at through a representative assembly of employees, that they believe should underpin life at the workplace. Posters are made, company presentations are given on the new values, emails fly out about them, people start getting recognised for showing the values. All good you might think; mission accomplished. But over time you start to realise that many of the values are purely aspirational - in some people's eyes. Actual behaviours within the organisation often don't reflect the values at all.


A classic one is a value typically called Openness, Honesty or Transparency. We know what that's about - communicating and communicating the truth. Few would disagree that it's an essential and important value within an organisation. But what do the employee engagement surveys tell us time and again? Management aren't open with us, they're not honest about what's happening, there's no transparency. Your reputation as a manager or management team who can be trusted in this area takes a long time to build - and seconds to wreck in many employees' eyes through an act of obfuscation, brick-walling or apparent informational dishonesty.


The best values rise from what is observed as being "the way we do things around here", ie demonstrable and widely accepted and practised behaviours, as noted earlier. Which is not to say organisations can't and shouldn't aspire to adopting and promoting new behaviours that are seen as a desirable development for the organisation. Just don't expect to be able to mandate that a new value will "now be practised by everyone". No amount of fancy posters and presentations will make new values take root in an organisation if many employees don't "get" or support them. You need to be able to make the case for new behaviours/values to become part of the fabric of the organisation, and that calls for consultation, discussion, debate. And management have to be scrupulous themselves in demonstrating the new values 24/7. That other old phrase "Do as we say - not as we do" comes to mind.


Some values are a challenge to bed down; others are more straightforward. Values around H&S everyone except the wantonly reckless (and deranged) will get, and while H&S procedures can be laborious and repetitive, there's near-universal acceptance of that line around "getting you home safely to your family at night."


More touchy-feely values take more work. But the more people who champion the values and demonstrate them, the more likely they are to flourish in time. Acknowledging people in the organisation who have demonstrated a value to a high level is good practice. But be wary of posting a monetary reward, especially a significant one, for great values behaviour. As Daniel Pink pointed out in his excellent book on motivation, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead, 2009), the incentive for demonstrating the value should be that it's intrinsically the right thing to do - monetary rewards change the motivation significantly.


It's also folly to try to launch and sell a set of values when you're restructuring, particularly if there's the high probability of job changes or job losses through downsizing. Employees facing questions around whether they have a job and what's going to happen if they don't (or do, but it's a different job) don't have the mental space or aptitude to engage in discussing new behaviours. The very worst situation occurs when one of the new values is about Openness etc - and management keep the staff in the dark about what's happening. Wait till the restructuring is complete and you're taking stock of what the new organisation looks like - and what's important to it. And then maybe begin a discussion around "how we do things around here."




Here's another HR mainstay: wellness. In my experience the concept of wellness within an organisation can still be somewhat hazily defined, and "ownership" can be transient. HR might look after it; or it could reside with H&S. Organisations where HR has a strong hand in what I call "pastoral care", i.e. looking after employees, generally hold the wellness reins.


Wellness is less about physical health and more about mental health. It's the domain of stress, burnout, depression, absenteeism, personal tragedy. How people are feeling about their work, their lives. It's the hard one to address. Un-wellness (in the mental health sense) can arise from many things including workplace bullying or sexual harassment. It's often invisible; employees keep their mental wellbeing private - or share it with a very few close friends or colleagues.


Organisations with wellness programmes try to fence the cliff road rather than react when the problem is well advanced. The new breed of wellness programmes comes into play - Yoga classes, meditation rooms, mindfulness training. Happy staff, happy customers. But many organisations feel it's enough to simply tell their staff about external providers, like the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), and are inclined to leave it up to the individuals to sort their own issues out - though a perceptive and caring manager usually gets more involved. Letting employees sort their own grief out feels like an abrogation of responsibility, particularly if it arises from workplace issues, and many problems risk going unresolved where the onus is on the individual to privately seek help.


Whether wellness features in your HR programme of not, if it's a part of the organisation it's certainly an area that requires, and will benefit from, communications support.


Seize the moment


A couple of final points: if your organisation has a regular all-staff meeting, HR should grab a spot at it to tell their story, reflecting on what's happened and the lessons arising and the good work that's taking place; and remember that organisations don't exist without people and their stories are gold, internally and externally. Where employees do well at work or at play, tell people about it. Tell their human stories in getting to their successes, but also just reflect their passion for the job, their interest in their industry, the contribution they make individually or as a team. Shine a light on them.



Talking With Your People: A Roadmap to Achieve Better Employee Communications in the Corporate World is available through Amazon and Kindle, as well as The Book Depository; copies can also be obtained from the author at [email protected] or via Ron's website





No amount of fancy posters and presentations will make new values take root in an organisation if many employees don't support them


HR should provide the greatest chunk of comms activity for the internal comms person