A Strategic Communications Plan for Ending Adversarial Relationships

A written strategic communications action plan can be one of the most important steps to reducing the threat of labor problems. While the importance of open communications is well understood and sounds simple and easy, few manufacturing companies implement a strategic communications action plan that imposes responsibilities and a timetable. A successful communications plan must have an asking strategy, based upon listening, responding, and acting, so that employees become stakeholders. The plan must contain critical questions in order to get effective results and the most important questions that management can ask are: What? When? Where? How? Unless there are specific answers to those questions, the action plan will not be properly implemented or may not be implemented at all because other priorities may take precedence. Without the implementation of a scheduled and ongoing action plan, management will be perceived by employees as being insular, secretive and not caring; employees will thus feel alienated, and management will have succeeded in maintaining and furthering an adversarial relationship that ultimately takes its toll on the bottom line.

However, a scenario in which management and employees talk and listen to one another and resolve problems together will result in increased trust by employees of management. If employees are to believe what management says, are to believe in the credibility of managements words, there must be open and ongoing communications based upon a specific strategic action plan. In addition to timetables, there must be chosen individuals who will bear specific responsibilities.

Management must not wait until problems arise before initiating such a plan. One of the biggest mistakes made by management is to wait until a labor problem arises and then open the doors of communication. Faced with negotiating a new union contract or dealing with a union organizing effort or operational issues, management may suddenly decide its time to talk with their workers. Its too late. Workers will naturally suspect managements motives and regard everything it says with cynical disbelief.

It is essential that open communications be ongoing, not something that one initiates at the first threat of labor problems. An ongoing strategic communications plan will ensure managements credibility, and that credibility will be built upon a foundation of asking, of listening, of talking, and acting in response to employee needs and issues. Management cannot sincerely ask, listen, and talk if it does not know anything about those with whom it is having a conversation. Therefore, management should know each workers name, each workers job description, family background, and have a familiarity with each workers performance record. Such basic knowledge implies a level of care and concern.

And the concern of employers for the welfare of employees will go a long way to establishing trust. There are many ways of communicating concern and building trust, and each is a necessary ingredient for a successful communications action plan. Among other means of communicating concern are providing financial information about retirement investments, offering fitness and stress reduction classes, and having a guidance counselor offer advice to parents about college admissions and costs.

Having successfully communicated its concern for its employees, management can open more direct channels of communication, knowing that its credibility is secure.

There is nothing more effective that one-on-one discussion where management asks, listens and talks, encouraging employees to do the same. It may take only seconds or minutes, but it should be a requirement of the communications strategic action plan. It permits employees multifaceted opportunities to address issues in an open and friendly environment. In addition, longer meetings can keep the doors of communication open.

Group meetings can occur bi-annually, quarterly, or even monthly. At such meetings, management can explain what it is doing and why. It can answer workers questions. Thus diminishing the opportunities for misunderstandings, which-if left to metastasize-can grow into major labor relations problems.

Compliant sessions are an effective means for maintaining a reasonable level of satisfaction among all types of workers. Such meetings are generally held on a monthly basis, and are sometimes referred to as coffee and donut meetings. Management can provide updates on important subject, and employees are encouraged to discuss any aspect of company policy, sales, expansions, etc. These meeting occur during the workday and employees are paid for their time. Defused negative rumors, revised production methods, and increased understanding of new company policies are just some of the positive results of such meetings.

Quality circles are another effective form of meeting, and they work for both union and non-union employees. Quality circles consist of small numbers of employees; the circles are more intimate than compliant sessions. The small number of employees permits management to tackle problems of workplace efficiency through a one-on-one give and take. Together, management and employees examine productivity, and make suggestions for improvement. Employees are left with an enhanced sense of their own competencies and efficiencies.

Meeting just for senior employees have proven to be an effective means for communicating managements appreciation for their long-term commitment to the company. It is essential that management demonstrate that such employees are held in a special position and are appreciated for their long- standing interest in the companys welfare.

At all meetings and at other times as well, there could be present an Employee Assistance Representative (an EAR), who will interact with an HR representative, making sure that all issues are discussed. The purpose of the program is to have a peer person available to communicate that management cares by responding to and acting upon employee concerns and to assist employees with their problem. In establishing the program, management further communicates and demonstrates its commitment to addressing its employees concerns. The initiative has greatly improved workplace environments, and it isnt expensive. The return on such an investment, in fact, has been tremendous.

In addition to personal contact, there are written means for communicating with ones employees. Among those forms of communications are newsletters, personalized letters, private memos, public notices, and self-appraisals.

A bulletin board, which can serve as a community newspaper, provides an opportunity to reach all employees with important announcements; a bulletin board should be placed where all employees can view it.

Self-appraisals are an effective means for having employees relate valuable information about themselves, management, and their peers. It can all be performed using simple written forms.

Award programs further provide management with another effective tool for communicating its appreciation for employees. One such program is a Service Award Program, which permits companies to retain their best employees by recognizing their contributions to a companys overall success.

The second type of service award is one that recognizes the quality of an individual employees performance over a period of time.

Another category is the Suggestion Awards Program. On a monthly basis, management could select an important and topical issue about which they solicit employee suggestions. Management may, for example, ask how they and employees can work more effectively to reduce production costs, reduce absenteeism, improve efficiency, productivity, and other matters of mutual concern.

Another part of a strategic communications action plan is the exit interview. It provides management with one of its best opportunities to gain candid appraisals from departing employees about the company. When an employee leaves a company, that employee is likely to feel free to voice candid concerns, opinions, and advice. During such interviews management can learn a great deal about problems that an employee may have been hesitant to express while being employed. One can garner valuable information about where a company must improve working conditions, where it needs to make changes in its corporate culture, and how to increase its own levels of trust and credibility. Such insights will ultimately serve to enhance levels of productivity and efficiencies.

All of the above are some of the necessary ingredients for an effective strategic communications action plan. The implementation of each ingredient, of course, depends upon a companys culture, time frame, and other variables, which will determine whether the action plan will be expanded or reduced.

It is only when management and employees are talking and listening to one another, when they are discussing issues of immediate concern, that both sides will be on the road to mutual understanding that can lead to agreement. By not asking, by not listening, by not talking, by not taking action, and by not opening numerous channels of communication, companies will feed adversarial relationships that will lead to unions where none had existed and to slowdowns, walkouts, and strikers where unions are already in place. A decreasing bottom line will surely demonstrate the shortsightedness of not having a strategic communications action plan. And that plan must be part of a companys overall business plan and its labor-relations plan which is incorporated in the business plan; it should be audited every six to nine months or more regularly, if needed.

The strategic action plan of open communications is designed to break down adversarial relations and establish perceptions of managements good will; if followed, it will ensure years of increased productivity and profitability with little or materially reduced labor strife. The positive results will go directly to a manufacturing companys bottom line.

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