Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Building employee trust requires honesty — and proactive communication

Here’s the thing: trust is not about guaranteeing employees that nothing bad will ever happen. If building trust requires a guarantee of anything, it’s that the company will tell employees what’s really going on, even if it’s bad.

Employees are smart enough to realize that no company can promise lifetime employment anymore. Most employees don’t even want lifetime employment. They want interesting, challenging work, and in an ideal scenario, work that they find personally meaningful.

They start a new job with the expectation that eventually they’ll move on to another company. Ideally, this would be when they themselves decide it’s time for a change. But unless they’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, they recognize that sometimes companies have to lay people off, eliminate positions or somehow reduce head count.

Honesty, then, becomes the real building block of trust. Employees feel trust in their company — and thus do their best work and are most engaged — when they believe management is being honest with them. So how does a company go about doing that?

1. Tell employees about any significant changes in the company — and tell them fast, before the rumor mill and the media get a jump on you. Some CEOs and other leaders delude themselves into thinking that if they don’t say anything, the employees won’t notice that anything is going on. Wrong. Employees know when something is up, and in the absence of management communication, they’ll take their information wherever they can get it, often from each other.

2. Tell the truth, even when it’s bad news. Particularly when it’s bad news. If employees know that the company will be straight with them in communicating negative developments, then they tend not to worry so much. Ironically, sharing bad news makes employees feel more comfortable instead of less so.

3. Give employees credit for being smart enough to know business includes both ups and downs. Most people have experienced plenty of highs and lows in their own lives, and they have an understanding that things move in cycles. Just because the business is down today, doesn’t mean it won’t be up tomorrow.

4. Make room for employees to ask questions. You have to make this honest communication a two-way street. Provide an intranet page for submitting questions or employee Q&A in town hall meetings or some venue for your people to ask management about the tough issues. That gives the company a chance to respond to the concerns that you have to accept are swirling around the workplace. The other side of that coin is that employees need the information they need to make their own decisions –even if that means their decision will be to leave the company. Although by answering their questions, you make it less likely that they’ll feel in a panic to jump ship. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as employees imagine it to be.

5. Share the management vision for the future. Most corporate management teams believe they’re doing this all the time, and it’s true that the people closest to them are familiar with the vision. But when we speak to the rank and file, there is most often a disconnect and the further away an employee is from the top, the less confident they are that the company leadership has a plan. There are many ways to do this, but one of the most effective is a management blog, which we at Tribe liken to “walking the halls, electronically.” A employee blog allows a CEO to communicate one on one with the entire workplace, and to reinforce the vision over and over, and to discuss a range of aspects of that vision.

Interested in communicating proactively and honestly about an upcoming change? Tribe can help.


Using Yammer for Internal Communications at Nationwide

30395724We recently gave a seminar at Tribe about using social media for internal communications to build trust and share knowledge. We shared a number of case studies, including Yum! Brands, Quicken Loans and Nationwide Insurance. I’ve shared some of my conversations with communicators from these brands on my blog.

In the world of social media, everything’s changing so fast, it’s delightful to share information on what’s working. In the case of Nationwide, the group was intrigued to learn that the company was able to get 6,000 employees signed up for Yammer without any promotion at all. They were intrigued, but not completely surprised – each of the communicators who attended admitted that renegade social networks were popping up within their organization.

Here’s the story of how Nationwide got started and how it’s benefited the employees and company. Shawn Morton, Director of Social Media, got buy-in from two C-level executives to test out Yammer. Shawn signed up for Yammer and looped in about 10 people – and they were off and running:

  • Involve the C-level. This was key to getting Yammer launched and then not shut down. Senior leadership jumps on Yammer and gives updates, like: “Just had a meeting with the CEO. We discussed this and that. Look for X in the future.” Employee feedback is: “This is great. We’d never have access to this type of information otherwise.”
  • Demonstrate trust. “Empowering employees to share information this way showed them that we trusted them and that the answer isn’t always, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” says Shawn.
  • Diffuse potential problems. Example: The other day an employee hopped on and asked why he couldn’t download Yammer on his company BlackBerry,” says Shawn. “The employee said he found the information on Yammer helpful and wanted to access it that way. Before I could even answer, a tech person saw his question and answered, ‘We’re working on it.’” The employee said thanks for letting him know. Other employees also chimed in to say thanks for the info because they were wondering the same thing.” So, in other words, instead of employees thinking Big Brother was monitoring them and maybe grousing about the unfairness of this, the truth dispelled that myth in a timely fashion.
  • Share rationale. “People are so worried about social networks allowing for the opportunity for employee to be rude. It’s not like you’re at home on your personal network,” says Shawn. “You know there are other people present. And, people are more curious – not rude. They’ll ask, ‘What’s the deal with X? How come Nationwide does that?’ When we answer, they say, ‘Oh, I get it. Thanks for telling me.’ They just want to know.”
  • Engage employees. Typical posts are: “Great meeting with interactive today. Here’s what we decided.” Or, “Love the X. Check it out.” Or “Who knows anything about Y?” It doesn’t take employees much time to monitor Yammer or participate. Messages are short in nature. One of our key goals is to engage employees. Well, here are 6,000 employees engaged with each other about the business.”