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The Human Aspect of HR Communications Strategies

If you’re in HR, no matter your role, you have complex messages to communicate to employees. You also likely have a hard time getting them to pay attention. This frustration is always in the top three for HR — you’ve told them multiple times, but they’re not doing what they need to.

But why? Partly, it’s because of who’s telling them…HR. 

Employees tend to see HR as a corporate function, with company goals in mind. A recent Gartner Human Resources survey shows that only 41% of employees think senior leadership has their best interest in mind.

The good news? The fix is (metaphorically) staring you in the face.

HR Communications Channels – People Vs Marketing

Your best channels are staring you in the face. When you think about multi-channel communications, it’s probably a mix of email, monitor screens, home mailers, posters, etc. What you may be forgetting is a more personal way to reach employees. 

The Gartner study points out that employees are more likely to trust messages coming from people they know…and see — their peers and managers. It seems employers are starting to agree, at least in theory and expectations.

77% Say It’s Effective – Only 31% Actually Do It

According to Gallagher’s 2022 State of the Sector, 77% of those surveyed said employee advocates (peers) are an effective way to communicate with employees. Yet only 31% use employee advocates for HR communications. This is an untapped HR resource.

In that same Gallagher study, 81% of companies report having an increased expectation of managers when it comes to communications. And, for the first time in the study’s 14 years, a top-three priority for employers is enhancing manager communications skills. 

If peers are an effective way to get the word out, and managers are bearing the load of yet more expectations, there’s an opportunity here to build your human communication channel. 

First, Find Your People

Most managers are, by default, part of your human channel due to their job description. But employee advocates can be hand-picked. Whether it’s by department, division, or location, managers and local HR folks generally know the popular employees with positive attitudes. Ask them who would be a confident, trusted, and enthusiastic messenger. 

Make it a personal invitation, not a mere email. Build up the importance of this new role by explaining why you’ve chosen them. “We’ve heard good things about you, and we know others trust you. So, we’d like to entrust you as an HR representative.”

To Make It Effective, Make It Easy to Help

Employees are busy — whether they’re managers, programmers, drivers, or accountants. For most, helping HR get messages out isn’t at the top of their to-do list on any day. But, if you make it easy, it won’t fall to the bottom either. 

To make your human communication channel effective, you’ll need to do more than send an email with talking points and attached flyers. Like any assignment, it’s easier to accomplish when there’s an organized plan with easy-to-follow instructions. 

For Routine, Predictable HR Communications

Quarterly tool kits are easier than unexpected emails. Kick-off each quarter with a 30-minute manager/advocate call. Give them the gist of each month’s topic and make sure the two groups are working together, not duplicating effort. After each call, send (or post) the quarterly materials in three separate packets, one for each month — these could be printed or digital materials. 

In each packet include:

  • Talking points and an FAQ on the topic.
  • Flyer, poster, email text, monitor screen, etc. 
  • Detailed schedule showing when and how to use each piece (talking points in huddles, posters in break/bathrooms, etc.). 

For Ad Hoc “This Just Came up” HR Communications 

Be sure your managers and advocates are plugged into a “message cascade.” This is especially important when you need to communicate change. Cascading starts with messaging for senior executives that are then tailored as it flows down the chain to regional, local, and team managers, and eventually to advocates and employees. You can read more and download a template here.

If you’re depending on people to help you get the word out, they need to know you’ll help them when there are questions or concerns. Commit to having answers (or at least get in touch) within one or two business days.

A Rewarding Experience — Show Your Gratitude

There are many ways to thank managers and advocates for being the trusted voice of HR, from plaques and certificates of appreciation to gift cards or an extra vacation day. The simple act of a handwritten note is an easy, inexpensive, and authentic way to say thank you. 

Employees aren’t ignoring HR communications because they don’t care what you have to say. They’re expecting a complicated message that takes time, so they plan to review it later. Then it gets later…and later.  If you can put your message in the hands of someone they know, see, and trust, they’ll take the time.

Let’s Make Internal Communications Exciting Again

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hi Sean! I’m writing a blog post for TalentCulture.com about the benefits of creating employee-focused communications that are compelling, persuasive, and fun — the opposite of those tedious internal memos nobody reads. Do you have any colorful, exciting examples of employee communications I can share with my readers?”

Sean: “Um … nope. Now that you mention it, we’re all about those tedious memos. In fact, the only time our internal communications are exciting is when our CEO publicly calls out a department and blames them for missed sales targets.”

Me: “Wow. Thanks for letting me know. Happy to send you a link to the blog when it’s published.”

I wish this interaction had been the exception to the rule, but alas, it was not. When I called a colleague in the higher education sector, her response was similarly unenthusiastic.

“Yeah, we don’t really do stuff like that here,” she said. “We send out lots of nice mailers for the students, but the faculty and administration? They just get whatever new policies we need them to follow.”

Too often, businesses both large and small fall into the easy and comfortable trap of treating their employees like a captive audience. Because the recipients of their internal messages are on the payroll, they assume their personnel are motivated to read, absorb, and act upon every ponderous Intranet update and boring e-mail that comes their way. The reality isn’t that simple.

“Employees are as important as any audience, if not the most important,” said Janet Miller of New Jersey-based Cox Stationers and Printers, which frequently sponsors employee contests and boasts a rooftop beehive at which it holds an annual company-wide honey harvest. “Finding new ways to keep employees interested and engaged is a constant challenge, but a rewarding one.”

An effective internal communications program can do more than keep employees engaged — it can also help them avoid a broken neck.

Sweetser, a behavioral-health nonprofit in Maine, was concerned about increased employee slip-and-fall incidents in icy conditions. They dutifully issued educational materials warning of the dangers of slippery sidewalks, and advising workers to use appropriate footwear … but the accidents continued.

The following winter, Sweetser went on the offensive. Their research revealed that a special type of walk — nicknamed the “Penguin Shuffle” — had been proven to reduce falls on icy surfaces. It involved taking short, shuffling steps with the arms held out, similar to the signature waddle of the South Pole’s most ubiquitous bird.

Penguin Shuffle

Sweetser, a Maine-based nonprofit, reduced employee slip-and-fall incidents 80 percent with clever employee-focused messages like this one.

Sweetser’s Penguin Shuffle campaign was disseminated to more than 735 employees at facilities throughout the state. It included the distribution of a humorous educational video
developed by Alberta Health Services of Canada, and posters at employee entrances reminding staff members to shuffle like a penguin when crossing icy paths.

“We even put decals shaped like penguin feet on the floors during winter weather,” said Stephanie Hanner, Sweetser’s Communications Manager. “Our colleagues found it cute and entertaining, but more importantly, the message resonated.”

Stephanie’s creativity paid off. “Since introducing the Penguin Shuffle, we’ve seen an 80 percent decrease in slips and falls,” said Jon Mistos, Senior Director of Facilities at Sweetser, who chairs the organization’s Health and Safety Committee.

Internal communications don’t have to be lackluster. Rather than regarding your workforce as a captive audience, afford them the same attention you would give your most valued customer. Be clever and creative. Use appealing colors and bold visuals in your internal e-mails. Plan your Town Hall meetings around interactive exercises and icebreakers. Conduct surveys to gauge employee satisfaction — and when the feedback rolls in, be prepared to take action.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t be like Sean’s CEO. Is it any wonder his team’s performance isn’t up to par?