Better Communication in the Workplace

Posted on October 1, 2010 in Consulting

Four simple tips to avoid not-so-simple problems

Want to dodge the courthouse and avoid employee claims against your company?  Remember one key phrase: better communication.  Employers can easily avoid workplace problems with better communication. 

In this newsletter, we describe several important tips for improving workplace communication.  Our experience demonstrates that implementing these ideas will help you address workplace issues before they become workplace problems (e.g., claims and lawsuits).

Let’s begin with a simple exercise.  Emphasizing a different word in the sentence each time, repeat this phrase out loud: “I never said he stole the money.” The significance of tone is immediately noticeable.  Studies show that 55 percent of communication comes from body language, and 38 percent occurs through tone of voice. Only seven percent of our communication is content based. 

From this exercise, and through the significance of body language and tone, we learn that effective communication must be done in person. That brings us to TIP ONE:  Any meaningful workplace communication should be done in person.   You already know what comes next.  Stop using email (and definitely text messages) for important communication.

For the following three tips, consider a few of the most common events in the workplace where communication is critical:  hiring, discipline, and termination. 

Better workplace communication should be implemented from the beginning: the first day on the job. TIP TWO:  A new hire should review the job description and the employee handbook with their supervisor at the start of their employment.   A supervisor should sit down with a new hire to discuss the hiring packet.  Simply presenting an employee with a handbook does very little.  A good handbook (a discussion for a later newsletter) should be succinct, with the capability of being reviewed with a new employee in 45 minutes.  In that same initial meeting, a new hire should receive guidance on the expectations of the position.  A well-written job description accomplishes this goal and has the added benefit of serving as a measuring stick should poor performance later arise. 

In our line of work, we rarely get the opportunity to discuss good employees with our clients.  Instead, the typical dialogue our firm has with a client revolves around the employee who underperforms or, in the worst cases, engages in poor behavior.   Inevitably the conversation turns to the question, “Has anything been documented?”  Because of this, written warnings are very important.  What we recommend, however, is that the disciplinary action begin with a face-to-face meeting that is memorialized in writing (whether it is confirmation of an oral warning, written warning, suspension, or otherwise should not matter).   TIP THREE:  Successful discipline must be communicated in a face-to-face meeting that is memorialized in writing.  Assuming that the employer’s intention is to correct the behavior (and not just to document it for later termination), then the in-person meeting is far more likely to lead to improvement than a mere written warning.  Additionally, this process compels frank discussion. 

Of course, discipline is not always successful.  Sometimes employment needs to end by way of termination.  Our advice on handling a termination may appear tough, but it is the most rational approach we know.  TIP FOUR:  Tell the employee the real reason for their termination; never sugarcoat.   If we had to pick any of these tips as the most significant, this would be it. 

The reason for this tip’s importance is as follows. One of the first questions a lawyer will (or certainly should) ask a person seeking representation in a wrongful termination case is What reason were you given for your termination.  In our experience, the employee (putative plaintiff) typically tells the truth; an answer such as “I don’t know” will not suffice for a lawyer.  Imagine if a company told their departing employee the real (and hopefully very legitimate) reason for their termination.  The terminated employee would repeat it to the lawyer that is considering their case, who would in turn give serious thought as to whether this is a matter worth pursuing. 

Now change the facts.  In order to be nice to the fired employee, the company classifies the decision as a “layoff.”  But only one person is being laid-off, and the company has an online posting for that same position.  The lawyer, hearing these facts, knows that the company is not telling the truth, but has no reason to think the rationale is kindness rather than (as a cynical lawyer might consider) some illegal motive. Termination is never a nice event.  Unfortunately, though, the inclination to make it easier with a softer and kinder explanation usually falls into the category, “No good deed goes unpunished”.

We hope you find this guidance useful, and we are always happy to further discuss our ideas in this letter with our interested readers.

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