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Employee Engagement Starts with Building Employee Confidence

In the most recent addition of Heyman Associates newsletter “Positioning,” several senior leader communicators discuss how a full economic recovery is not only dependent on  restoring consumer confidence, but on rebuilding employee confidence as well.  Below are their insightful assessments on why employees are critical to the success of an organization and what organizations need to address in order to “re-engage” them through three key areas: achieving the highest level of engagement, creating employee ambassadors, and leveraging the right communication tools.

(1) Level of Engagement

Tim Fitzpatrick, Vice President, Marketing & Communication at NextEra Energy, Inc. /Florida Power & Light Company, said that in order to achieve the highest level of employee engagement, employees need to identify with the mission of their company, see a clear line of sight from their work to the achievement of the company’s mission and feel that their individual contribution is important and valued.

He said that employees, who understand and appreciate the company’s mission, or core value proposition, are more likely to have confidence in the company’s future. He added that while employees don’t need guarantees of a company’s success, they do need a reason to believe that their company has a future. More importantly, they need to hear that from the company’s management. In that regard he feels employee confidence is every bit as important as consumer confidence.

Ellen D. Gonda, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Communications at Hilton Worldwide, agrees that there is a strong link between consumer and employee confidence.  She said Hilton’s customers are at the center of everything they do – so motivating their team members to create experiences that win the loyalty of their guests is of paramount importance.  Additionally, social media makes it easier than ever for their team members to share their enthusiasm with prospective guests, therefore, maintaining employee confidence is essential.

The ability to positively engage with employees has a direct link to retention, according to Vicki Lostetter, General Manager, Talent and Organization Capability at Microsoft Corporation. She said restoring employee confidence in the mission, strategy, operating plans and leadership is critical to creating an environment where employees are committed, energized and motivated to make a difference.  This is particularly true during difficult economic times she said, when employees begin to question if they are giving their extra effort to the right organization and team.

When the economy begins to return, she believes the organizations that will win at the talent game will be those that gave their employees confidence and care during the difficult times.

Keith Burton, President of the employee communications consultancy – Insidedge, referenced a recent study indicating that 60 percent of employees polled by a talent and career consultancy said they will leave their current employer when the economy improves.

As the economy edges closer to recovery, Burton said true to form, people are now leaving their companies in greater numbers.  He said many are leaving because their interests are not aligned with the organizations they serve.  Others are leaving because their employers failed to listen and eliminated key programs like training and development.  Some companies, he said, failed to recognize and reward those who were forced to wrench their way through the downturn with reduced support and longer hours on the job.

Mark Palmer, Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness and Corporate Communications at Sysco Corporation, thinks the central issue with employees is restoring faith that they play an important role in the company’s success.  He said communications should revolve around helping employees understand what actions they can take to help their company succeed, and by extension, help their community and their “micro-economy” recover.

(2) Employee Ambassadors

We asked our panel how to create positive employee ambassadors when employees work in industries or businesses that are, of late, constantly under fire.  Also, we questioned to what extent communicators should consider the impact of external criticism when communicating with employees.

Lostetter said whether a company is struggling financially, under fire, or performing brilliantly, employees want to know and have confidence in four things: company mission and direction, critical focus areas required to win in the marketplace, the ability of their leaders to drive the right outcomes, and clear, meaningful ways in which they can contribute to customer and company success.

She believes external criticism influences how employees feel about the company they work for; and to that end, the external environment should be considered when communicating internally.  However, companies should not feel the need to respond to every item in the press, but, they should look for opportunities to share a balanced and factual perspective about the ‘tough news’ and reinforce the positive things the company is doing.  She added that direct, timely and transparent messaging is essential to building employee trust and commitment.

Fitzpatrick encourages companies to see the opportunity during times of crisis.  He said that employees who understand, believe and embrace the company’s mission are more likely to continue to feel good about their company in the face of public criticism.  Every industry and company experiences periods of public criticism.  To counter that, he said companies should think of those periods as an opportunity for management to talk about the mission and the value the company provides consumers.

Palmer agrees with the potential for opportunity.  He said if you believe that crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin, you use the heat from the crisis as an opportunity to fire up credibility and loyalty by getting your message in front of those ambassadors.  Oftentimes, the most credible sources in a crisis are “insiders,” like employees.  He said you should write your communications to them and hope they share with all constituencies.  In the end, they can be more effective than your spokesperson.

The brand equity of an organization is more apt to guide communications during crisis, according to Burton.  He said that change is the watchword for successful companies. So those who are best-in-class are never afflicted by economic turbulence or other events that can disrupt the flow of a culture. Great companies know how to equip their people as brand ambassadors.  By doing so, they can expect their customers and other key stakeholders to gain a consistent and favorable perception of the brand identity.

When it comes to external criticism, Burton agrees it never helps employee morale.  However he said leaders can’t allow third parties, the media, bloggers or others to define the “employer brand.”  He believes that companies have to work harder to create “one voice” so that in every possible instance, they communicate proactively and transparently so that these other stakeholders don’t become a credible channel for employee communications.

Gonda sees the impact of brand equity every day.  She said at Hilton Worldwide they have a proud 91 year legacy and recognize the responsibility that comes with being the stewards of such a prominent brand.  When communicating with their team members, she said they are honest and direct to ensure that their management team is considered the most reliable source of information.  They also emphasize that their guests always come first and said when they are focused on this top priority and genuinely enjoy serving their customers, it’s much easier to keep everything else in perspective.

(3) Effective Communications Tools

With so many options available, we asked our panel what they consider to be the best tool for communicating with employees.

By and large, our panelists agreed that face-to-face communication is still the most preferred method.  Palmer said no other tool conveys the genuine emotion of the messenger, allows for candid discussion, and leaves an audience feeling connected to an issue better than an in-person meeting.  Fitzpatrick agrees stating that in every instance, employees get the greatest degree of motivation from hearing and seeing their management – all levels of management – talk in person about the company’s mission and the important role they all play in making the mission a reality.

Lostetter also encourages an approach that mirrors the variety of communications tools now available – social networks and media, blogs, shared sites, intranet sites, web casts, video conferencing, etc.  With today’s technology advances, companies can share information and employees can work together anywhere in the world, at any time.  While there are so many benefits to communicating with technology, companies and leaders should also take full advantage of daily interactions and face-to-face meetings to make the connection personal.

Gonda said that when dealing with large, global employee populations, online communications can drive traffic to areas such as company Intranets where they can access live interactive meetings and Webcasts.

Through interviews of thousands of employees over the past 20 years, Burton said regardless of whether they are in an office setting, out in the field, or on a manufacturing line the feedback has always been the same.  Face-to-face communication from their direct manager is the most trusted and effective method.  He said as Al Golin, considered one the true leaders of public relations, once said: “High tech will never replace ‘high touch.’”

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