Every time I talk to HR professionals about communication, this is what they tell me: “We work hard to get employees the information they need about pay, benefits and policies. But employees still don’t understand essential concepts; they always come back with lots of questions.”
If that’s your experience, too, then you won’t be surprised to learn the results of the Human Resources Communication Study 2015.
My firm worked with researcher Brownstone Information Resources to ask 1,000 employees from large corporations (those with a workforce of 5,000 or more) how their companies communicate about performance management, benefits and compensation.
The good news is this: Employees are interested in HR communication. In fact, nearly 100 percent of respondents read or skim everything they receive.
But only 30 percent are happy with communication—and 50 percent feel indifferent.
And there’s more bad news: Most employees say HR communication doesn’t prepare them to make smart decisions. Just 25% employees feel well informed about compensation; 15% are comfortable with benefits information, and only 11.5% have enough knowledge to take action on performance management.
Finally, what about all those questions? Employees confirmed that they’ve got tons of them, and most often turn to the company intranet, HR representatives and their managers for help. But only half of employees get the answers they need.
What’s the problem?
With all the effort you make on communication, why does it miss the mark? Here’s my tough love: A lot of HR communication is not very good.
Created (or at least approved) by subject-matter experts, HR communication is often technical and impenetrable. Plus, those pesky legal caveats and disclaimers make understanding difficult.
Perhaps even worse, most communication uses language that makes sense at headquarters but misses the mark in the cubicles, factories and stores where most employees work. As one survey respondent commented, “I have a master’s
degree in public administration and sometimes I still cannot understand the materials as presented.”
Is it any wonder that employees find communication to be confusing, irrelevant, and frustrating?
What to do differently
While there are many things you can do to improve HR communication, the best advice can be summed up in one word: Simplify. By focusing on the essential information employees need to know and stripping away all the extraneous stuff, communication will be more effective.
But you might say, "My program is not simple. It's complicated."
That’s right. It is complicated. So here’s the key: to meet employees’ needs, you need to make communication as simple as possible.
Here are five ways to do so:
1. Convey what matters most to employees
Let’s say you’ve just given a presentation to senior management about your new program. Your PowerPoint deck was appropriately detailed: 44 slides explaining why the program is needed, how you designed it and what it contains. And your hard work paid off, because the meeting went well; management approved the program, giving you the go-ahead to implement it.
Now it’s time to communicate to employees. And here’s the first thing you should do: Close the PPT file and take out a blank sheet of paper. Why? Because the way you structured your message to “sell” your program to management is very different from how you need to frame your message for your employee audience.
Instead, use that blank piece of paper to answer this question: What’s the most important thing employees need to know? As you write the answer, limit your response to 15 words or less.
This isn’t easy, but it’s significant, because you’ve just “framed” your message: created a core statement that captures the essence of what you need to communicate. From here, you can create a message platform that organizes all your content in a cohesive way.
As you do, continue to focus on the two essential questions that employees always ask: “What does this mean to me?” and “What do I need to do?”
And those pesky legal disclaimers? You’d be surprised to know how few are actually legally required to be there. It’s worth chatting with your legal department to see what can come out.
2. Emphasize “how to”
Next time you’re at the airport, head over to the newsstand where the consumer magazines are displayed. As you peruse publications like Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health and Bon Appetit, notice the “cover lines” (the short headlines that promote what’s inside that issue):
• How one “Biggest Loser” really lost 140 pounds
• Make dinner like a pro—in just 30 minutes
• 7 success strategies your CEO doesn’t want you to know
• Sleep deeply | Wake up energized
• How to love a crazy job
What do these cover lines have in common? They promise to help readers solve a problem and improve something they do. Magazine editors know that people crave information that makes things easier, simpler, faster and better.
The official name for this approach is “service journalism,” explains Don Ranly, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. The idea is that you (the communicator) perform a service for the reader. By packaging information in a way that is useful for readers, they will be more likely to use that information to take action.
Luckily, HR information lends itself to this approach because it personally affects employees, and there’s often a “how to” component. There are so many ways to structure your content to provide a service; here are some examples:
• How to make sound investment decisions
• How to decide what amount of life insurance you need
• 5 ways to increase your productivity without leaving your workstation
• The pro’s and con’s of flexible work arrangements
• 3 steps to choose your best medical coverage
3. Slice, dice, and chunk content
No, this isn’t a cooking lesson or a sales pitch for one of those infomercial products (“It slices! It dices! It cleans your laundry!”). Instead, this tip is about cutting content into manageable chunks.
“Chunking” is necessary because we’ve become a society of skimmers and scanners, glancing through a print publication or browsing in a website to find what we need quickly. We read shorter chunks of information much more readily than we will read huge, gray columns of words with no break in sight.
To create chunks, use techniques like these:
• Highlight key words and phrases.
• Create bulleted or numbered lists instead of long paragraphs.
• Create break-heads to group similar content into sections, such as “Background,” “Program changes,” or “For more information.”
• Use call-outs, boxes within the body of an article, to draw attention to important points or information.
• Include visuals, such as photos, illustrations, drawings and charts to explain complex content.
4. Use plain language
Anyone who has worked in HR for a long time is susceptible to a syndrome known as “The Curse of Knowledge.” Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe this syndrome in their book Made to Stick: “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what is was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.”
The result is content that’s too technical, so it’s difficult for non-experts to understand.
Luckily, there are several ways you can cure yourself of this curse. The first is to stop using jargon. Second, get rid of complicated words and terms that are difficult to understand.
But you might protest that there are specific HR terms you must use because they’re the only way to accurately describe certain things, or because they’re legally required. If this is the case, you must not assume that the average (or even above average) employee understands these terms. Instead, define terms every single time you communicate.
How do you know if your language is simple enough? Check your readability (you can do this right in Spelling/Grammar preferences in MS Word). The average American reads at a 9th grade level, so some companies use that as a guide (as do publications like Reader’s Digest).
5. Be brief
By now, you’ve made great progress toward improving your next communication. But here’s the most important advice of all: Make every piece of content as brief as possible.
Some rules of thumb:
• Create articles (in print or on the web) that run only 250 words or less.
• Use three to seven words in headlines.
• Limit e-mail messages to 50 words or less.
• Create sentences that are no more than 15 words in length.
• Use short paragraphs, with no more than three or four sentences each.
You have a captive audience in your employees. They are hungry for information that will help them make smart decisions. Leveraging these tips can help your hard work on HR communication pay off and everyone wins.
Interactive: HR Communication Video
Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for 30 years has helped leading companies, such as BASF, Ingersoll Rand, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé and PepsiCo, reach, engage and motivate their employees. Davis has written or edited these groundbreaking books: “49 Ways to Improve Employee Communications” (2013), “The Definitive Guide to HR Communication” (FT Press, 2011) and “Your Attention, Please” (Adams Business, 2006). Visit www.davisandco.com Email firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @alisonbdavis