Thursday, April 30, 2009

Everyday Risks: Communications Within Your Organization

From the "Just when you thought it was safe..." file:

Communication within organizations is a double-edged sword: you need it, yet it is one of the primary sources of complaints and lawsuits by employees. Most organizations suffer from inadequate and ineffective communication overall, while pockets of unacceptable communication may exist that should not. This post explores the need for better communication as well as the risks for both employer and employee. (Managing trade secrets and business reputation will be the subject of a future post.)

"As Sam once said..."

By now we should "get it." If you have read Sam Walton's book, Made in America, or have worked for Walmart, you know that among the core principles upon which the largest retail business in the world was built, communication ranks very high. Mangement guru, Steven R. Covey commented in 2007, “Great leaders involve their people in the communication process to create the goals to be achieved.” Business schools offer courses on the subject and there are innumerable online resources on the importance of effective communication within organizations, how to ensure your communication is effective, as well as the consequences of poor internal messaging.

At the same time, there are new giant settlements and jury awards announced frequently in sexual harassment suits (e.g., Waffle House and Cracker Barrel) and hostile work environment claims (e.g., DishNetwork and AT&T).

What you say CAN be used against you

We need communication and communication happens whether we want it to or not. Then what should a business manager do? The answer is essentially the same for every risk you want to manage: train, monitor and respond promptly. None of these, alone, is sufficient. Together, they outline your risk management plan.

Train your managers on the benefits and key elements for successful communication as well as the boundaries and consequences of inappropriate communication by management and other employees. Address every form of communication that occurs in your organization: bulletin boards, electronic mail, spoken comments, text messages, slide show presentations, posters and internal newsletters. Explain the types of speech that give rise to hostile work environment claims, but be sure to promote positive, effective communication that helps your organization or department achieve its goals with higher morale. Point them to tools and resources for motivating and communicating, how to communicate effectively, and the importance of choosing one’s words wisely.

Eyes Open!

Knowing what to do and not to do is the first step. The next is monitoring the work place. There are countless court decisions, statutes and other rules that use the phrase “knew or should have known.” They address the “ostrich syndrome” by many who want to hide behind an intentional ignorance. It will not work.

Managers must monitor communications the way they monitor the most precious processes within their departments. It can be no less important than pilfering, waste, trade secrets or accurate invoicing. But there are limits, here, too. Stay inside the employer’s property, both physical and virtual. Avoid unauthorized intrusions into an employee’s personal property or online accounts, as this employer learned the hard way.

It is also important to set expectations around the work place. The training for managers should not be considered secret information. Train your staff, too, just as schools are now teaching staff and students about the elements and consequences of bullying. You gain nothing positive by avoiding the discussion and you will not plant suggestions in employees minds they cannot and likely already may get elsewhere.

One key place to shape expectations is in your computer use policy. Make sure employees know that the computers, company email accounts and other employer-provided collaboration tools AND ALL INFORMATION in them belong to the employer. Inform staff openly that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy there. They should know that anything they store on the employer’s equipment, including personal photos, belongs to the employer.

What happens in Vegas…probably will not stay in Vegas

Unfortunately, in real life, secrets are not kept and actions speak volumes for days on end. Indiscrete comments and faux pas under the influence of alcohol, drugs, lack of sleep, stress or even so-called “convention syndrome” tend to live much longer than most would hope. They also create unintended consequences around the work place and can get out of control very quickly.

With any anti-harassment policy, there must be an effective reporting system. “Effective” means that people can report violations safely without concern for retribution and that those who receive the report will investigate the facts fairly and promptly. But an effective reporting system is only as valuable as the effective responses to verified reports of violations. Action must be reasonably calculated to address that situation and prevent future violations while maintaining confidentiality and respect.

Each of the cases noted above includes the comment that management ignored or responded inadequately to reports. In each case, there was ultimately a significant cost for that. Treat each report as if it could be the tip of an insidious iceberg, because you may not be aware of what is happening. Then take prompt, decisive action that also communicates your intolerance for the behavior at issue. Doing so documents your effective response plan in action.

Communicating Communications Correctly

Workplace policies are designed to control risks to the organization and the employees. You cannot leave people to do the “right” thing all the time, behave reasonably or know what they should and should not say. It does not take much. I have seen the most compliance-oriented managers make comments during a presentation that revealed confidential facts about an employee who was in the room. Some in the audience were horrified, but the speaker was oblivious to what she had done. If the employee wanted to pursue a complaint, he may have had enough to at least create a significant legal distraction for the employer for a while.

So what should a business manager do? Train, monitor and respond promptly to any reported violations.

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