Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.



Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.



Well-Timed Words: Free and Effective

When I worked as the employee communications specialist for an AT&T manufacturing plant in the 1990s, the general manager asked my help in communicating with employees about the need for heavy overtime hours around the Christmas/New Year holidays. While employees generally liked getting overtime, they were not thrilled about working so much at that time of year.

The general manager and I talked about the issue and focused his message around the business need while acknowledging the sacrifice of family time during holidays that are so focused on families. We decided it would be appropriate — and a nice touch — for the general manager to write a letter to the families of employees, explaining the reasons for the overtime but mostly thanking them for giving up their family members at Christmas. We worked hard to make sure the letter sounded sincere (because he was sincere in his sentiment) and gracious.

It worked. While there was still some understandable grumbling, the general consensus was that the letter was well-received and that families appreciated the gesture.

That story illustrates the importance of business leaders acknowledging the social contract that exists between employees and organizations. We often think first of the monetary contract and many business leaders believe money is the greatest motivator for employees. While money is important, it is not the only factor at work in the workplace.

Scott Keller, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, co-wrote a book, “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.” In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Keller says his research for the book found that the social contract — the understanding between employees and their employers that is predicated on meaningfulness of the work — is more powerful than the monetary contract. He mentions hand-written thank-you notes from the CEOs of Wells Fargo and PepsiCo as examples of social gestures that provide tremendous motivation to employees.

“Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures with at best a limited impact,” Keller writes. “In keeping with the significant body of evidence from the social sciences, employees on the receiving end would beg to differ. They say that the resulting boost in motivation and connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years.”

And he quotes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, on communication’s vital role in the social contract: “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune.”

I often hear resistance from managers, supervisors and even business leaders when it comes to providing those well-timed, sincere words of praise. Old-school managers who weren’t raised in such an environment dismiss words of praise as soft psychobabble. “They get a paycheck, that should be enough,” they grumble. Others simply blame their own lack of interpersonal communication skills or discomfort. “I’m just not comfortable in one-on-one situations,” they say, or “I get nervous in front of groups.”

Well, guess what. Being a leader sometimes requires us to stretch our skills and to do things we’re not entirely comfortable doing. In this post-recession, 21st century work environment, it’s time for leaders — at all levels — to get over their fear of real, organic communication and see what good comes from such an inexpensive investment in employee motivation. This is “small-c communication” at its best, a way to help re-engage a disengaged workforce for the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for every organization in this economy.


Bad News About Employee Engagement Spells Opportunity for Communicators

There is a tremendous opportunity for employee communication professionals brewing. Now, perhaps more than any other time in our profession’s history, we can cement our place as a value-added business function by helping our organizations fix a problem that threatens their ability to remain competitive.

I believe one of the greatest challenges facing businesses today is the continued disintegration of employee engagement. I’ve written about this epidemic before and research continues to show that businesses are trying to achieve their goals with employees who are demotivated, disappointed in their work experiences, distrustful of management and who have simply checked out.

The latest study comes from Maritz Motivation Solutions. They surveyed more than 1,000 workers across industries and the findings show a continuation of disengagement that began around 2008 with the U.S. economic crisis. Among the findings:

  • Only 45% of employees said they feel rewarded and recognized by their employers
  • Of those who did not feel recognized for their efforts (which is the majority), 80% did not feel completely satisfied with their job
  • Of those who did not feel recognized, 58% did not feel motivated to go beyond their normal job duties to get the job done
  • 33% identified themselves as employees who just “stay the course” rather than being motivated to make a difference, move the organization forward, or innovate “what’s next.”

A workforce that doesn’t feel recognized or rewarded for a job well done is a lot less likely to exert much effort in their work, the study found. And a disengaged workforce can be deadly to businesses struggling to compete in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

That translates into real dollars, folks. Companies today need employees who are willing to apply their talents and skills, ready to innovate, and who will go the extra mile to get things done.

Communication can play a crucial role in turning things around. Studies have shown there is a direct correlation between companies that communicate frequently and openly with their employees and the degree to which employees are engaged. Companies with effective communication practices have more engaged workers, and more engaged workers create more successful companies.

We should grab hold of this opportunity and not let it go. This is a real problem that smart leaders should be worried about. We should be getting time on our leaders’ calendars to sit down and talk about how communication can help re-engage employees. If we don’t, we might have a lot fewer employees to communicate with down the road.


Yahoo!’s Seinfeld Moment

One of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is “The Apology,” in which AA-inspired Jason “Stanky” Hanky apologizes to people he has wronged. Everyone, that is, except for George Costanza, who tries to pry an apology out of Jason for what he considers an insult concerning the size of his head.

Jason offers a sarcastic apology, then later apologizes for it — or does he, really?


I was reminded of this half-apology when I read a memo to employees from Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson. The company revealed last week that Thompson lied on his résumé, stating that he had received a computer science degree from Stonehill College when in fact his degree is in accounting.

Yahoo! defended Thompson, saying that “This in no way alters that fact that Mr. Thompson is a highly qualified executive with a successful track record leading large consumer technology companies.” Well, yes it does. The leader of one of the world’s leading technology companies shouldn’t lie. And if he lies about his college degree, what else would he lie about?

As Yahoo! scrambled to figure out how to manage the fallout from this embarrassment, Thompson wrote a memo to employees. He does a few things right — talking about how the board is dealing with the issue and trying to refocus employees on the considerable work ahead of them — but then there is this:

I want you to know how deeply I regret how this issue has affected the company and all of you. We have all been working very hard to move the company forward, and this has had the opposite effect. For that, I take full responsibility, and I want to apologize to you.

Thompson has made one of the most common mistakes CEOs, politicians and other scoundrels make when they are caught doing something wrong and try to apologize for it. He apologizes for the fact that his lying has affected the company and its employees, but he doesn’t really apologize for lying.

I wouldn’t blame Yahoo! employees if they felt a bit like George Costanza. They deserve an apology — the right kind of apology for the real offense, not regret for the fallout it has caused.


How Do You Communicate Safety?

I had an interesting conversation recently with the person in our company who is responsible for workplace safety. The company has set a challenging, yet entirely achievable, goal of zero injuries. We were talking about how to create a zero-injury culture in a global company with dozens of locations.

I recalled my first job in corporate communications. I worked in an AT&T manufacturing plant (AT&T has since spun off their manufacturing operations) and safety was also a priority there. During my eight years there, I had the safety mindset drilled into my head: Don’t enter a manufacturing area without safety glasses. Don’t walk with your head down or read while you’re walking. Be careful as you turn corners. Always have a top on cups filled with liquid. Don’t leave things precariously perched on overhead shelves. Avoid tripping hazards like loose cords or objects on the floor. Use handrails on stairs. Clean up your workspace at the end of the day. Drive slowly in the parking lot.

The company communicated those messages consistently and persistently. Over time, they stuck. Now, I find myself with the same mindset in my home — not that I’m perfect about following all the safety rules, but I’m painfully aware when I’m not.

I’ll be working with our company’s safety director to think about how we can effectively communicate the zero-injury culture to our employees around the world. I believe those consistent, persistent messages communicated over a period of time might do the trick. I’m interested in any other ideas or best practices out there that you’re willing to share. Use the comment box to share yours.

How Communicators Can Aid Employee Retention

In another sign the U.S. economy is improving, a recent survey by one of the nation’s largest recruiters found that 28 percent of employers’ job openings in January were the result of people quitting their jobs, up from 21 percent last July. The Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this trend, saying that the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs has steadily increased since the low point of December 2009, in the depths of the recession.

This is good news for workers because it indicates they are more confident they can find a job. It’s bad news for employers because it’s expensive to lose talent and recruit replacements. It’s also bad news for employers because it indicates a shift of power back into the hands of employees. It’s slowly becoming a job-seeker’s market once again, so hiring companies might soon find themselves making more concessions in negotiations with candidates.

There’s something else going on here, though. When unemployment is high and jobs are hard to come by, companies sometimes treat employees like a necessary evil, paring back benefits and perks, imposing more restrictive policies, pulling back on communication activities and becoming less forthcoming with information than they were when times were good. Managers get grumpy because they’re often caught in the middle of this austere environment, and as we know, people quit their bosses more than they quit their companies.

I wrote about this coming shift nearly two years ago and how employee communication could play a role in helping to stave off the exodus. Now it’s upon us and I have some additional thoughts about the role communicators could play in helping our organizations retain talented employees who might be looking for greener pastures.

  • Help to create or maintain a culture of open communication. Hopefully communicators have done this throughout the recession as business leaders pulled back on communicating — because there wasn’t much “good news” to communicate. The business environment shouldn’t dictate what an organization’s communication culture is like.
  • Help position managers and supervisors as trusted sources of information. Middle managers are the linchpins of most organizations and they should be armed with enough information, resources and training to maintain the trust relationship with employees — in good times as well as bad.
  • Encourage business leaders to be out front and up front. This past recession, perhaps more than any other, greatly eroded employees’ trust and confidence in senior management. One way to rebuild that trust and confidence is for leaders to be seen and heard. Employees’ decisions to leave organizations are sometimes based on false assumptions about the condition of the organization or because employees don’t believe its leaders have a plan for success. Now is the time for leaders communicate openly and clearly about how the organization is emerging from the recession and what it plans to do in the next 3-5 years.
  • Communicate about employees’ total compensation package. Without being too obvious about it, find a good time to remind employees of what the company offers them beyond base salary or hourly wages. Before open-enrollment time, tell employees about some of the “hidden benefits” they might not know about. Find ways to remind employees why it’s good to work for the organization (if, indeed, it is — don’t put a turkey in a tuxedo and pass it off as high class).

Hopefully, your organization isn’t playing “catch up” now that better times appear to be on the horizon. Making “good will deposits” in the bad times is the best way to ensure your best employees stick around when it’s easier to leave.