In Jo Faragher’s article for the CIPD’s People Management magazine September 2016 “Employee councils and social media are opening up new routes for staff to get their voices heard. But is anyone listening?” she raises a number of interesting questions about the methods and effectiveness of employee feedback

The article suggests that the combination of a fragmented labour market, declining union membership (only 24% from a high of 70%) and thus formal employee representation plus the rise of social media have created a significant volume of individual feedback from staff which employers can find overwhelming.

How then is HR to respond to these structural changes in the labour market and employees’ preference to voice their concerns and views through multiple channels? How can HR and senior management ensure they engage in meaningful dialogue with their employees? Here are my top 10 tips for engaging with staff in the digital age.

  1. Communications strategy: the business owns and controls the communication process, information and the message. Similarly, it owns the flow of communication between the employee and the company and must ensure that there is an effective means for hearing employee views and concerns. It must create an environment that actively encourages employee opinion, i.e. (put simply) one that is seen to listen to it. “Listen to” and “agree with” are not the same.  Giving logical reasons for rejecting a particular view will be far better received than just ignoring it.  Aim to respond within a few days if possible.  A one-off idea or proposal may merit a considered individual reply, while a number of comments all on similar terms may suggest the need for a more generally distributed communication.  Resist the temptation to ignore negative feedback, since it is often from that source that employers can learn the most.
  2. Communication cycle: HR should devise in conjunction with the senior management team and preferably also Marketing a consistent communication plan that regularly disseminates information to staff and invites feedback.
  3. Medium: careful thought needs to go into the most suitable channels of communication. The nature of the business, culture, size and geographical footprint will be relevant to this.  The subject matter will often also determine the means of communication.  Anything involving job losses should ideally be communicated face-to-face and not via technology, no matter how geographically dispersed the workforce.  Several methods can work in harmony and might include an online presence for employees to post questions and comments, an annual employee engagement survey and monthly ask-management forums conducted face-to-face.
  4. Mixed union and non- union company: whether an employee is part of a recognised union or not, members of staff are employees first and a union members second. Communication should be planned with this in mind. The union will have a view on this and will engage in communication with their members which is perfectly normal.  However, as mentioned above, it is imperative that the company controls the main message, its meaning and intent and dictates the level and frequency of communication from staff.
  5. Staff committees/councils: establishing a committee for non-unionised staff can be an effective way of giving them a voice. However, HR needs to be mindful of the conflict that can occur between the union and non-union factions if one is treated differently in terms of the information or access to management provided.
  6. Suggestion boxes and engagement surveys: are valuable tools in employee involvement and communication. However, they will fail if employees do not feel their input is being taken seriously or management do not respond. These measures require a high degree of commitment and follow-up from management to make them work.
  7. Social media: there may be little choice other than to embrace this medium but it should be used carefully and selectively, for example, for making employees aware of corporate benefits, social events and careers and recruitment fairs, i.e. non-controversial and straight forward topics. Nothing confidential or contentious, and make sure you control who has keyholder access to the account.  Even so, it is unwise to put onto social media, whether closed groups or not, anything you would not wish to see in the public domain.
  8. Timing: is of the essence. Get it wrong and opportunities to engage with staff are lost. Get it right and staff are on message, engaged. For the most part, if they hear the message first from somewhere else, you have probably missed the moment.
  9. Confidentiality and the public domain: in spite of best endeavours to control what is in the public domain, staff will from time to time go public with sensitive company matters. Consideration should therefore be given to whether it would be appropriate to place information in the public domain on a pre-emptive basis.
  10. Planning: achieving effective employee engagement and feedback does not happen by chance. Planning is key and the whole communication process should be project managed by selected staff. Needless to say, involving your staff in the development of any formal communications structure will always be a good start.