The Challenges of Employee Communications

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was in charge of employee communications at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. My job was to try to ensure that NIH management and its rank-and-file workers understood each other, in an environment where there was, and historically had been, great tension and antipathy.
Part of the tension was racial. This was the early 1970s, when black employees were asserting themselves as they had never done prior to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. The NIH had a large number of black workers, but very few in professional jobs. The African-Americans most often were animal caretakers, grounds keepers, security guards, laundry workers, and the like. They had good, steady jobs, but advancement was severely limited. There was no path to management jobs.
Part of the tension was class-based. There was, and may still be, a class barrier that prevented NIH professional workers who supported PhD researchers from advancing to higher levels at the agency. The lab technicians, no matter how skilled and inventive, could not move to the jobs occupied by the most credentialed scientists, even incompetents. This was a problem because much of the research work was done by the technicians; many were smarter and more creative than their bosses. This problem also had racial and gender overtones. The docs were mostly white men. The technicians were more often women and black.
Being chief of the employee communications branch was the most difficult and most frustrating job I have ever had in more than 40 years of employment. My experience in the job—which I lobbied internally at NIH to create—drove me away from government management and back to my first love and my greatest skill: journalism.
One of my cynical friends at the NIH, who died last year, taunted me that my NIH job really amounted to “explaining to employees why they aren’t being screwed, when they are.” There was much truth to that. On the other hand, it was clear that some employees and their advocates were using racial and class politics in seeking sinecures that put them into jobs beyond their abilities.
I took a few lessons about employee communications away from that experience. I share some of them below for those of you involved in communicating management issues and policies to employees.

First, Make Sure Top Management Understands that Communication Is a Two-Way Process

Communicating with employees does not mean telling employees, however clearly, what constitutes corporate or agency policy and how they must implement it. It’s not top down. In this regard, employee unions can be useful as a brake on one-sided management fiats, a rough BS detector.
Bolts-out-of-the-policy-blue from above, particularly when they upset long-standing practices and work cultures, serve more to alienate employees than to empower them. The imposition of policy from above also undermines the front-line management folks who are on the ground and are making progress. Communication requires collaboration, not crushing authoritarianism. “Change” is not an effective mantra when it is unidirectional.
Management and workers must each buy off on major changes in jobs and the work environment. It’s up to the bosses to explain what they are proposing and why. It’s up to workers to give management ideas serious consideration and provide their serious input. Then they both have to agree on a common path. That’s not an easy task, but it is essential.

Second (and This Should Be Obvious to Everyone), Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

The hardest part may be to recognize the truth. At the NIH in the 1970s, the management style was benign and monarchical. Many employees perceptively referred to the large college-like campus in Bethesda as “the plantation.” Agency management consistently refused to level with its workers or explain why certain practices (such as the subjugation of laboratory technicians into dead-end jobs) existed. Instead, the agency lied to its employees (and itself), insisting that there was no barrier to advancement for folks who had masters’ but not PhD degrees, despite the creative and seminal work on the part the putatively less-credentialed.
The employees knew when agency management was shuckin’ and jivin’ over personnel policies. Shortsighted management didn’t understand that it was deluding itself and not befuddling its workers. The bosses, scientists all, had the attitude that they were intelligent, enlightened, progressive, and well-meaning folks. Therefore, nothing that they did could be in error. That delusional approach to human resources caused endless problems.

Third, Don’t Hide Behind Hierarchy

The NIH was part of what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now the Department of Health and Human Services. NIH management, when confronted with tough personnel challenges and dilemmas, too frequently told its employees that the local managers were unable to buck the hierarchy at the department downtown in Washington. That was largely BS. The agency (as I knew well) seldom made serious overtures to the folks above to recognize and deal with local problems in Bethesda.
Responding to problems by blaming the bosses a step above in the hierarchy is characteristic of many organizations. The complaint is, “I can’t do anything about it. It’s a corporate decision.” That’s ducking the issue, trying to sell workers a phony bill of goods. Workers see through the hypocrisy. Good and courageous managers respond to valid employee complaints and suggestions. “I’ll take it up with the corporate management and fight for you. I might lose, but I’ll do my best,” is the proper response. And then the good managers do it. They often win for their workers.
When employees and their advocates are full of baloney, which is often, good managers tell them so, respectfully. They don’t scapegoat corporate management. They confront the workers. It’s “tough love,” and it often works. "That’s crap, and here’s why," is the proper response to outrageous and rent-seeking proposals from employees (and, often, their unions).

Caught in the Middle

Employee communications is tough, particularly on the middle-management folks who exist between corporate management and workers. Part of the job is convincing employees that the communications professional is honest and not a management tool. Part of the job is convincing corporate management that communicating with workers honestly and frankly is worthwhile. Neither task is easy.
Good luck. The job sure burned me out quickly.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.

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