How to build better relations with employees

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The first chapter in Part III of Your Public Relations, the 1948 book we are serialising at PR Conversations, is authored by Kirk Earnshaw, industrial relations editor of Modern Industry Magazine, said to have been “a foremost authority” in the field of labour relations who offered “sound public relations procedures to industrial relations”.

Alongside sharing insight from Earnshaw’s chapter, this post offers a review of the newly published book, Internal Communications: A manual for practitioners by Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov (with Pamela Mounter). As such it enables consideration of this specialism across a period of 65 years.

The first notable difference in these two works is that Earnshaw is an outsider; the modern authors are practitioners in the field. Next, it is interesting that Earnshaw’s chapter title focuses on relationships with employees, where the 2014 text has a more functionalist title. Indeed, in stating what IC is concerned with, the new book does not specifically mention employee relationships listing, instead saying it focuses on “sharing information, building understanding, creating excitement, commitment and, ideally, achieving a desirable result”.

Both books claim to have been written as a practical manual. Where Fitzpatrick and Valskov aim to “help people who are getting started in internal and change communication”, the 1948 book targeted “management executives, public relations directors and counsel, career aspirants, teachers and students, and all those interesting in fitting themselves into the modern pattern of human relationships”.

They agree on the importance of the topic matter, but where Earnshaw centres his focus around industrial relations (as a vital part of public relations), the contemporary function is argued to have moved from this context “to its importance in the CEO’s armoury of leadership skills”. The claim for progressive development of IC is something that Kevin Ruck and I questioned in our paper for the International History of Public Relations Conference in 2013, although undoubtedly Fitzpatrick and Valskov are right in observing the growth in IC as an occupation in the last two decades.

Personally I feel the tendency to state that public relations practice (including internal communications) is better today than in the past is a mistake as much earlier wisdom seems to have not only been lost, but denied by this stance. Earnshaw’s view of history is that that worker and management communications were easier before industrial development as relationships were stronger by being direct, although this reflected absolute power of employers over workers.

In their book, Fitzpatrick and Valskov present a well organised, managerial perspective of IC where communication is seen as important in adding strategic value by influencing employee behaviour. Earnshaw’s text is in agreement arguing for a “proper place on the organization chart” and a role in management decision making.

Both works touch on organised labour – although surprisingly this is not given much consideration in the latest book, where the authors make a passing reference to the role of IC not being “to make every office or factory work like a workers’ cooperative” and there is no listing for Union relations in the contents or index.

In contrast, Earnshaw considers the rise of the “phenomenon” of “socialized organization” of workers. He attributes this to “bad – or sorely misguided – public relations on the part of several generations of management” and while decrying “radical infiltration” by “a small, raucous, well-organised Communist minority” concludes unions are “a buffer between him (the employee) and management, when management is bad. As such Earnshaw sees the union as a competitor against which legitimate communication techniques must be used to “win the understanding, the loyalty and the cooperation of workers” without being “used to destroy or undermine an existing union”. He also argues in favour of employee representation and councils to work with management on common problems. In my own experience, the role of Unions, and employee committees, remain important for many types of organisations, and I would expect their role within internal communications to be considered by Fitzpatrick and Valskov.

In examining the importance of understanding employees, I am also surprised the contemporary authors argue in favour of the term ‘audience’ saying it is “what we believe most of our colleagues in business think is the right term for the recipients of communications”. For me, this seems at odds with recognition of the need for segmentation that is given due discussion. My dislike of the ‘audience’ term is not a reflection of favouring ‘professional jargon’ (as the authors deem in reference to ‘publics’) but that most people use the term ‘audience’ to signify those we communicate at, rather than with. It is not merely semantics to believe communications take place between people and so recognise that employees are actually people who may be belong to Unions, be shareholders, members of a local community – and active, intelligent participants in the organisation’s success, not simply a human resource to be informed and persuaded. Hence my preference for Earnshaw’s focus on building better relationships employees rather than seeing them as an audience for internal communications.

There is commonality in the texts in respect of determining employee opinions, with Earnshaw noting “thirteen well-defined methods” to do this from open-door policies to focus groups, polling and interviews (both spot and depth). Fitzpatrick and Valskov likewise champion research and evaluation, highlighting the importance of data, particularly to “win the budgets and resources needed for large scale campaigns”. Their detailed chapter highlights “the annual engagement survey” which personally I feel is over-rated and often little more than a token, or totem, of opinion research. Their construction often owes more to a ‘market research’ mentality, commonly assessing ’employee satisfaction’ and a communications channel audit rather than genuine insight around strategic issues. Indeed a once a year dipstick measure seems rather old-fashioned in today’s interconnected, fast-moving world, despite its longitudinal value as a tracking measure. They do have a section on qualitative research, although only focus groups are detailed. Research derived from ethnography, phenomenological or social-constructivism would be useful to include, not least as it is found in HR and organisational journals as well as increasingly in PR scholarship. My point is that there are more options for research today than in Earnshaw’s era, but I’m not sure the practice of IC is necessarily engaging with these.

I would also like to see more on data analysis and interpretation in the new book as from my experience as a marker for the CIPR IC qualifications, this is an area where greater competence is required (as it is for many PR practitioners). It is not enough to rely on basic statistics or external specialist in my opinion and although Earnshaw doesn’t offer insight here either, both works argue that research without action to address findings “means nothing”. To be fair, Fitzpatrick and Valskov offer additional reading sources on employee research. But I believe this is a side step, as research without an ability to robustly assess data sets (both qualitative and/or quantitative) is problematic.

Both texts provide useful consideration of channels (2014) or tools (1948) of the trade, with the modern text also focusing on messaging. This is usefully connected to various theories relating to communications and psychology and presented with a handy ‘message palette’. Again I find that practitioners often focus on simplistic messages (especially when these are being tracked in evaluation) and would like to see development into narrative and discussion at the heart of communications rather than transmission of messages designed simply to influence others.

There are several other areas of commonality from considering the relationship with senior management, the role of the line manager and competencies. Although I’ve noted a few areas where I’d have liked to see the new book go a little further, it is undoubtedly successful as a manual for practitioners. As such, it fits into the mould of Earnshaw’s chapter and the entire Your Public Relations book.

There do seem some interesting areas within Earnshaw’s text that remain problematic today. For example, Earnshaw looks at public relations tools for “better labor relations” where he is considering those in the hierarchy, typically foremen, who may act as blockers, potentially because their sympathies are with the workers, or because they are badly paid and trained, and often little more than bullies. Fitzpatrick and Valskov have a chapter called: Why line managers matter and how to support them, noting they are “often the poor relations in the communication hierarchy” who often do not receive formal training in communications.

Overall, the echoes across the decades are the most notable aspects in comparing the 1948 and 2014 perspectives on employee relations / internal communications. For me, this probably highlights two things. First, that many of the issues relate to human nature and as such remain largely unchanged. Secondly, though, I wonder if there is an issue as Kevin and I noted in our own paper (shortly to be published as a chapter in the third edition of his book: Exploring Internal Communications) with some trends or themes continuing or replicating over time, with periods when any wisdom gained is lost or ignored. As such we still have to address the need as argued by D’Aprix in 1979 for internal communication practitioners to be more foreshadowers and interpreters of change and Wright’s 1995 call for them to be recognised as agents of change in the corporate workplace to make certain organisations communicate honestly and regularly with employees on topics the rank-and-file workers consider important. These points are found in the work of Earnshaw and also in the new text by Fitzpatrick and Valskov.

In conclusion, let’s look at the Editors’ Note in the 1948 book for this chapter:

Employee relations is the most important area in the whole field of public relations. The attitude of most customers, and of practically all citizens of the community, reflects what the employee says and what is his general attitude towards the company. Employees naturally are and always should be the most important corps of good-will ambassadors for the company. If they are not, find out why and correct basic errors of policy and practice. If they are, use every available method to keep them so.

Remember the employee is on the ground and is a first-hand witness. Customers and members of the community are more likely to believe what he says about the company than they are to accept the reaction of anyone else. Good public relations techniques are practically worthless unless company policy is accepted and generally approved by the employee.

Image: 1948 Studebaker advert originally intended as morale builders, the series proved to have strong public appeal as product adverts.

Read other chapters in our series of posts from the 1948 book: Your Public Relations, via this link to contents list.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Once again, and again, this post (as the whole series…) is interesting, thought provoking and stimulates a highly shared (by me at least) ‘vision’ of the function of employee communication today.

    For the record I received my Master of Science in Public Relations degree in 1962 from the Pro Deo International University of Social Sciences in Rome with a final thesis on ‘trade union relations as part of public relations’.

    So, since I was 21 I have always been interested in arguing that the traditional divide between ‘internal’, assigned to what we once called personnell, and’ external’, assigned to what we once called public relations is obsolete.

    What does not seem to emerge from the recent book you criticise but als well from many other papers and discussione on employee communication, yet was instead relevant in the Earnshaw piece of 1948, is the important role of relationships with trade unions.

    The reasons for this are probably at least two:

    a) in general trade unions all over the world have lost much of their power of representation not unlike most other internediate social and economic institutions in our societies, leaving workers to represent themselves in their dealings with employers….. but this is another post;

    b) there seems to be, amongst our professional community, a widespread movement for ‘political correctness’ that leads us to diisregard the fundamental intermerdiary role of trade unions. It is considered ‘old hat’ and ‘not chic’.

    Admittedly today many of the issues facing workers and employers are more effectively dealt with by single organizations and their internal stakeholders, rather than by coalitions of businesses and coalitions of employees.

    However it is a fact that in Germany representatives of trade unions sit by law in the powerful, and not ‘lip service’, supervisory boards of major companies. And it seems to have worked for many decades.

    Thank you for this post and for bringing to our attention that in 1948 public relators were more advanced than many of our colleagues today.

    Also, I totally agree with your caveat on using usually third rate models of internal stakeholder listening practices with questionnaires that do not even conceal their desire to attract an aswer that does not contradict the employers already taken decisions.

    And, of course, this is true for many other segments of current stakeholder listening practices.

    • Toni – thanks for the comment and I take your point (as others also express in the comments) about the declining power of Unions. However, they are still there and important in many industries/sectors. These tend to be the largest employers, include the public sector, and so remain important for those likely to be seeking senior and management careers within the IC field, or broader PR/communications roles.

  2. Heather, you’ve missed the key comparison completely. 1948 onward saw opening up an almost unprecedented period of optimism and economic growth we now call the post-war boom.

    Ironically, the period’s high horizons were embodied by the moon landing, which marked its peak. Today we live in down-beat times of recession and pessimism. Profit and growth and human footprints today are dirty words, whereas once they were all seen as progressive signs of things getting better.

    There’s no eternal formula for PR or for engaging workers – no holy template to follow. But one thing missing today that was present between 1948 and 1970’s-ish was a firm belief in the virtues of growth, profit and progress and the purpose of corporations. In that sense our forefathers were far wiser and more inspiring than we are…

    • Paul – my post was seeking to compare these two texts primarily rather than present a comparison of the times, which as you, and Anne Gregory, point out offer changing contexts for IC practice.

      Whilst I can see the contrast that you present between a more optimistic era and today’s more down-beat one, I’m not sure that this comparison stacks up in terms of Earnshaw’s perspective on employee relations against the 2014 book’s viewpoint.

      Indeed, if we look at the bulk of IC practice in the 1948-1970 period that you mention, as Kevin and I investigated in our IHPRC paper, it was an era dominated by the employee publication generally edited by ex-journalists and a largely propagandist approach to IC. That attempt to control communications contrasted with the rise of Unions and employee dissatisfaction with management into the 1970s in much of the industrialised world.

      For me, one of the most interesting things about Earnshaw’s chapter is how he combined a belief in profit and progress, with a pragmatic approach to IC that wasn’t about propaganda. It is that insight that seems to me to keep being lost in the practice – regardless of whether employees and their employers are operating in a world that is on a high or a down…

  3. What an interesting post!

    I think the comparison between today and 1948 is very instructive for a number of reasons; not least to ask the question whether we’re ‘better’ today at IC than we were fifty plus years ago.

    For me the truth is that we have got better at IC simply because employers now realise that workers are more than mere chattels to be deployed and directed. People bring their brains to work and expect a fuller relationship; which is why our craft has clearly professionalised within my working lifetime.

    In the last few decades we have seen trade union membership in Europe decline massively; in the UK fewer than 6 million people are members of trade unions (less than half of the figure which peaked around 1980). And a Google search suggests that across the EU membership remains surprisingly low – 18% in Germany and just 8% in France – and three out of four workers in the EU are not represented by a trade union.

    During the 1980’s we saw the rise of the human relations approach to management; employers adapting to the changing labour markets and the end of full employment in many advanced economies. Personnel departments became Human Resources; a change in more than name which placed greater emphasis on the need for richer workplace relationships and spawned a demand from managers for effective workplace communications.

    I do think that trade unions actually have much to offer progressive employers. In a 1998 paper I argued this in the context of the rise of ‘partnership’ agreements between employers and unions and I still believe that an effective IC manager will have strong relationships with union representatives where they exist.

    However, for the vast majority of practitioners, unions are not a significant stakeholder. That is why, in our short book, we didn’t give them a great deal of attention.

    The challenge for communications professionals is to ensure that the relationship between staff and the organisations for which they work are mutually beneficial. This is a point to which we return continually in our book and is specifically mentioned in the sections where we talk about terms such as ‘audiences’ and ‘engagement’.

    Overall, I think the practice of internal communications has changed massively in the years since the end of the second world war. And I believe it has got better, more sophisticated in so many ways.

    Liam

    • Liam – thanks for the comment and the inspiration for the post via your new book. However, I’m just not convinced that the argument for ‘better’ IC demonstrates a realisation of workers by the majority of employers as intelligent people or that the employment relationship is more than a basic exchange one in most cases.

      Indeed, I’d argue that declining Union membership has little to do with progressive or professionalised IC (which I also feel is debatable) or improved management.

      As Toni says, discussion of Unions is worthy of another post – but let’s just say that issues around outsourcing of work to the lowest cost base globally, poor health/safety standards in many countries, zero hours and other weasel employment practices etc etc – call for more worker representation or at the least, a better response than leaving ‘progress’ to the market.

      Interestingly, I was at an organization last week that was both sophisticated in its IC and recognises the importance of the Union as a partner in employee engagement.

      My belief is that the majority of IC practice both in 1948 and today is unsophisticated – but quite possibly should be. This is because micro, small and medium-sized organisations account for over 95% of firms
      and 60%-70% of employment in OECD countries – and are where growth will come from. Many of such organisations probably do not employ dedicated IC personnel, or have one or two people who may also be responsible for the broader comms function. I’m not dismissing IC in such organisations, but feel that the virtues of personalised communications, and a role for the IC/communications practitioners as facilitators in enabling this does not need to be viewed as sophisticated or professionalised, but certainly can be – and should be – efficient and effective.

  4. And following up Toni Muzi Falconi’s point with regard to data gathering…

    In general I would consel agains making perfect the enemy of the good. The fact that many people make no effort at all to understand stakeholder views is a concern and any data gathering process is to be applauded.

    I would commend Susan Walker’s excellent book “Employee Engagement & Communication Research” and Angela Sinickas’ work in this area for anyone wishing to know more and improve their practice.

    I personally feel that many annual employee surveys are a farce. They tend to be so general, of such little interest to senior management and subject to such simplistic analysis that they really are of limited value. I always advise comms pros to develop their own intelligence and listening processes.

    Liam

    • Liam – I am with you on the issues with many annual employee surveys and appreciate your links to additional sources. I don’t think that understanding of where we are is always the basis of taking action, so research and insight are not options but essential in any communications or management practice. I think it is interesting to see how the online environment is increasingly enabling employees – or would be employees – to assess organisations and although this TripAdvisor approach has its limitations, is evidence of a shift that has implications for IC.

      So if the internal world is not effectively engaging with data collection and analysis (qualitative as well as quantitative), we’ll see the external world increasingly doing it and presenting management with information about employee perspectives that it may not like.

  5. While I partly agree with the adage that there is nothing new, what constantly shifts is context.

    Today’s organisation is very different from the largely paternalistic (because the bosses were men) and hierarchically structured organisations of the past where most focused on manufacturing and production.

    Even more different is the fact that employees live in a very different world, where their attitudes and expectations are set by having much more access to unmediated information, where they are connected and where (particularly the younger) they do not make enduring commitments to their organisations and where the consumerist mentality – driven by marketing – now dominates.

    So employee comms, IC or whatever you want to call it has had to adapt to context.

    • Anne – context is important and rather than looking at macro-societal changes which necessarily present a sweeping overview of the world then and now, I feel we need to be more focused on specific rather than universal practices and approaches within IC.

      As I’ve outlined to in other comments, there are still many organisations that do focus on manufacturing, production and are hierarchically structured, which, along with large public sector bodies, will have unions and other specific considerations. At the same time, we have the majority of employment in micro-small-medium enterprises which bring different challenges. And this is segmentation of organisations only on a size variable.

      We do also have to consider segmentation and understanding of employees – some of whom may be informed, articulate and connected, but many of whom have challenges relating to employment and are not seeking self-actualisation but a basic living wage. And it is not only whether or not employees make enduring commitments – but whether they are able to do so. It is difficult for employees to engage in organisations where there is very little medium, let alone, long-term commitment in legal or psychological contracts, or organisational management.

  6. Dear Heather

    It’s a fair point – I shouldn’t exclusively attribute the professionalisation of IC to a rise of more enlightened attitudes by employers. And it is fair to say that many employers when no one is watching will immediately revert to Dickensian practices.

    However, smart employers surely must realise that a well informed, motived, engaged and loyal work force is in their economic interest. I believe that the prevalence of this mindset in the last few decades has been a significant factor in how our craft has changed.

    Whilst you are correct to check that I am not implying a causal link between the decline of unions and the increased practice of IC, I think it would be great to have the debate about whether IC has actually improved. My feeling is that it has but it might be interesting to see how one might evaluate that…

    Liam

  7. Let’s throw some light on this issue. The history of internal comms in the UK from 1939 (and Germany from 1945 onward) to circa mid-1980s is really the history of trade unions in the tripartite state. In other words, trade unions were officially part of management and the state and they owned the connection/relationship to workers/employees and, as a consequence, they were largely responsible for internal comms on behalf of the both employers and the state.

    Internal comms, separate from trade union influence, only emerged in the 1970s when the post-war settlement began to crumble (summed up in the slogan “Labour isn’t working). The tripartite state was smashed in the 1980s (remember Thatcher?) and then – and only then – did the internal comms role take off and take more form and become what it is today as it filled (or tried to do so) the gap left by fossilised trade unions.

    I am pleased that we no longer have tripartite state.

  8. I think this is a rather simplistic analysis. I don’t think you can single out the decline of British trade unionism as the principle causal factor in the development of internal communications globally any more than I can claim the music of Wham was the driving force behind any other social development in the 1980’s.

    I can’t claim to have the answers but should we give some attention to the influence of people like Waterman or maybe the human relations school of management? What about the inpact of new technology or The credit-based economy and the global deregulation of financial markets?

    Just a thought…

  9. Liam, I didn’t mention “globally”. I cited Germany and UK. And, yes, I say precisely that from 1939 to the 1980s British trade unions had a near monopoly (and unhealthy hold) on internal communications in the tripartite state — in both the private and public sectors. The amusing thing is that after WWII, the British TUC was asked to help draft the laws in Germany that institutionalized the tripartite state on an even more formal and legalistic basis than existed in Britain.

    And, yes, internal comms as a separate widespread function did indeed emerge in the UK to do two things a/ counter union influence as it crumbled b/ fill the vacuum post-1980s, which it never was fully equipped to do. And as to new technology, that had nothing to do with this issue (why should it?). Neither did deregulation of financial markets; except to make the Banking Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU), where I was the deputy in charge of PR, the fastest, and very possibly, as I argued at the time, the only growing trade union in Thatcher’s Britain.

    I wager that anybody who knows anything much about British and German labour and political relations would not challenge my key points.

    Or are you saying, as is the logic of your comment, that the tripartite state never existed and that Thatcher didn’t smash the post-war consensus? (I’ve no time here to explain how things played out in Germany/France and the rest of Europe).

  10. As for the rest of Europe, at least Italy, may I add that in 1946 -when the post war reconstruction started-capital (then mostly formed by state owned enterprises, but also the huge international oil companies and pirelli, and fiat and olivetti… all entered into a tacit coalition with trade unions for a joint growth effort mostly focused on improving relationships between managers and workers.

    This effort lasted until the early mid sixties and fueled the ‘Italian miracle’ together with many a best practice cases well studied by my good friends the historians Frenando Fasce and Elisabetta Bini.

    There was an environment where trade union leaders, Marxists and not, cooperated with progressive mostly catholic human relations managers for what then was believed to be a win win alliance.

    The staunch and tough German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble , in a recent interview to L’Espresso, even said that the German mitbestimmung practice owed a lot to that period of co-management in Italy!

    In the sixties and seventies players returned to their ideological positions, social strife was rampant and employee communication became mostly redundant and unpopular.

    In the mid seventies, the automakers union, following many a strike, succeeded in obtaining a ‘right to information’ clause in the new national contract establishing that companies were obliged to inform union representatives of every new policy decision by management and it would be the unions responsibility to disseminate such information to employees.

    The companies accepted this and stopped all their employee communication programs.

    In fact it immediately became apparent that trade unions actually blocked the flow of information inside corporations.

    They were simply not capable of doing this effectively.

    Following five years of non communication between companies and their employees, the dissatisfaction amongst white collars and also an important segment of blue collars was such that Torino, home of Fiat, hosted in 1981 la ‘marcia dei 40 mila’, the march of the 40 thousand, protesting against the block of information..

    Tacitly the trade unions gave up and companies returned to their traditional lip-service employee communication habits.

    Interestingly however, those were the years in which the Japanese management model began to attract attention and this disrupted traditional employee communication practices.

    For the first time Confindustria, the very powerful national association of manufacturers , commissioned a research on employee communication practices in Italian companies that was published in 1985.

    And finally, only one year and a half ago, in partnership with other Italian scholars, entrepreneurs, trade unionists, professionals and intellectuals I launched an activist group called ‘impresaperta’ (open enterprise) in an ill fated attempt to revive the immediate postwar coalition to help the urgently needed reconstruction of Italy’s intellectual, moral and generally intangible assets. Obviously not much luck, Helas! Reconstucting intangilble assets proved much more difficult than material ones…

    The younger are not interested in studying the past, the older — even when active, aware and intelligent — have no trust in the institutions they themselves have created and left to their children.

    Cheers.

  11. Hi Paul

    I think we agree:

    – The Thatcher Government was not good news for trade unions.
    – Previous governments enjoyed a corporatist approach, bringing labour and industry into policy making at many levels

    My point is that the decline of trade unions and the rise of IC practice should not be linked as clearly as cause and effect. There were other significant factors at work.

    Technology, from the late 1980’s onward made communications cheaper and easier to do. Desk Top publishing, for example, made it simpler and faster to produce print materials. Managers could afford their own newsletters and so a world of possibility was opened up.

    Changes in financial markets in the 1980s had a profound cultural effect on the world of work in the UK – attitudes to personal wealth and aspiration shifted dramatically in the era when politicians famously said things like “there is no such thing as society” and economists promoted the generation of profit as the sole responsibility of business.

    These are just two examples; our world is complex so I would expect there to be many more.

    With regard to your wager…how big a bet are you putting up? 😉

    Liam

  12. Liam, I don’t buy your reply. Because in the tripartite state the unions had a near monopoly. There was no room for a third party internally. Even human resources (personnel departments back then) mostly acted as the collectors of union dues (check off) and drafters and enforcers of closed shop agreements. So, here my use of cause and effect stands as being a good description of what occurred.

    As to new technology, I don’t buy your technological determinism either. In the 19th century employers’ organisations arose specifically to counter emerging militant trade union propaganda and activism; in the media, to government and most importantly in direct internal communication to their workers. They didn’t have desktop publishing or any new technology and they didn’t need it. And I’d say however useful modern new tech is – it has nothing to do with this paricular story at all.

    In the mid-20th century, the unions went from outsiders to part of management with a seat at the top table. And, as Toni described well, they struck a new relationship with the bosses and governments in the post WWII period (and in Britain post-1939).

    Bossess and governments surrendered control of workers at work to unions. So much so that everybody was shocked when Thatcher broke the rules by cutting out the union bosses. She went straight to the rank and file, over the head of the union bosses, using the media, and connected. She then destroyed/smashed the tripartite agreement. Bossess then did likewise….but it was politics that led it.

    Your remarks on financial deregulation and profit are also well wide of the mark. So I still wager…

  13. I can certainly vouch for the rise of internal communication as a counter to union communication in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK. I started work in 1979 in what was then called Post Office Telecommunications (later BT) as a clerical officer in the accounts department. My first supervisor was a prominent communist and the local union rep who helped to produce a weekly newsletter that openly criticised management, sometime in a derogatory way using cartoons.

    When British Telecommunications was being prepared for a Thatcher privatisation in 1986 a new glossy corporate magazine was introduced in the district office where I worked and the union publication was banned. In my experience, the union was seen as the only way for employees to have a say about what was going on in the 1980s. The nearest that senior managers got to front line office based employees was at the annual Christmas lunch in the restaurant where they served the food. At the time, everyone actually really appreciated this gesture.

    However, this situation has gradually changed and in the last decade I have seen more emphasis on internal communication practice that incorporates ‘employee voice’. This is a term, like ‘employee engagement’ that is often misunderstood. I raise it here as it is relevant to the discussion of the role of unions as part of the conversations that take place between senior managers and employees.

    In understanding employee voice I think the work of UK academics, Wilkinson et al., is useful. They suggest that voice is based upon five factors:

    1) Communication/exchange of views, an opportunity for employees and managers to exchange views about issues.
    2) Upward problem-solving, an opportunity for employees to provide feedback on specific topics.
    3) Collective representation, an opportunity for employee representatives to communicate the views of the workforce to managers.
    4) Engagement, a feeling on the part of staff that they are able to express their views to managers in an open environment.
    5) a say about issues, the opportunity not just to have a ‘voice’ on issues but an expectation that these views will be taken into account and may lead to changes in how decisions are made.

    It seems to me that these are all activities that internal communication practitioners should help to facilitate. If internal communication practitioners just send (often sterile) messages to ‘audiences’ then they are often (perhaps unwittingly?) just corporate propagandists. Incidentally, I also dislike the term ‘publics’, but equally refrain from calling employees an ‘audience’. I prefer to just call employees ‘employees’ .

    In terms of the progression of internal communication (or not, as this may be illusionary) the point is that we have minimal data to determine what, if anything, has improved. The Workplace and Employee Relations (WERS) study in the UK indicates marginal improvements in satisfaction with employee voice between 2004 and 2011. However, the study does not include questions about satisfaction with being informed, so we don’t know whether or not employees do feel better informed today than 10, 20, or 30 years ago. This is a great shame and partially due to the way that internal communication has not been given the full attention it warrants by HR and PR academics and the PR industry in general.

    One way forward is for practitioners to demonstrate the value of internal communication through research and measurement…another point that has been covered in this thread. I could elaborate much more on measurement (as it the subject of my current PhD thesis) but that’s probably a separate post. I would simply add that there is a significant body of work on this subject that has been conducted by Professor Owen Hargie and Professor Dennis Tourish. Their book ‘Auditing Organizational Communication’ is, in my view, an essential read on this subject. There is also a useful measurement matrix for practitioners, published by CIPR Inside as the output of the combined thoughts of a group of experts when I was chair in 2012.

    CIPR Inside Measurement Matrix: http://ciprinside.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Measurement-Matrix-FINALno-printmarks.pdf

    WERS Study link: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers

    Wilkinson et al. reference: Wilkinson, A., Dundon, T., Marchington, M., Ackers, P. (2004) Changing Patterns of Employee Voice: Case Studies From the UK and the Republic Of Ireland, Journal of Industrial Relations, 46(3): 298

  14. Kevin, thanks for sharing your insightful experience about the 1970s and 1980s. However I have to challenge your view of the present.

    Workers are not more engaged today than in the past. Work and working today have been devalued culturally to a mere means to end rather than a definition of what people are. That has a good side, but it also rather suggests people are more disengaged than ever in their workplaces and work.

    And I think there’s something quite wrong – perhaps even perverse – about the modern obsession with attempting to measure the quality of relationships using measurement and bean-counting techniques. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as somebody who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing: “And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything”.

    And I suggest that something that is wrong in the present is that global business today is not really profitable or successful. Hence there’s a worldwide recession, or stagnation at best, and a real threat that all the world’s major economies (certainly in Europe) could end up like Japan; going backwards in a deflationary, demoralizing spiral

    In Japan’s case, this backward trend has resulted in almost 20 years of doldrums, which has led many Japanese to retreat from the real world into one of fantasy. They have begun to shun marriage, having babies and engaging the opposite sex in proper human relationships and/or, increasingly, even engaging in sex itself: but preferring virtual digital relationships to real ones (something the BBC has covered well). As to work and people’s engagement in it, the loss of the work ethic and interest in their careers in Japan has been remarkable and far from positive (again, all praise to the BBC for bringing this to light).

    In summary, I do not advocate return to a mystical past that I (and you and Toni) rightly critiqued. I do, however, lament the denigration in our society of the importance placed on the necessity to be profitable; and increasingly profitable at that, in growing economies. I also rebel against those who denigrate the importance placed on work and working. And PR pros, above all others, should, I say, be being push back hard on all attempts and trends that undermine the social value and positive contribution of corporations and institutions in the modern world. But right now, we are going in the opposite direction…

  15. Paul,

    The situation in Japan is very concerning and I would certainly like to see much more focus on the management of organisations as communities that really value employees.

    I don’t believe I said that workers are more engaged now than in the past. I don’t know the answer to that question. Definitions of engagement are evolving and the term was not being used in the 1970s and 80s. So we have no way of knowing for sure. If we look at more recent data, it suggests that engagement levels are stagnating at best. But the data is often skewed towards job engagement, not organisational engagement, so we are only really getting a picture about one (albeit important) dimension of engagement.

    The WERS data that I mentioned shows a marginal increase in satisfaction with employee voice between 2004 and 2011. Of course, you can critique the research methodology used, a survey of 21,981 employees in the UK. However, I don’t think using surveys in this field is ‘wrong’ or ‘perverse’. I agree it would be very limiting if we only used questionnaires for internal communication and engagement research. I personally combine surveys with other, qualitative, methods. Indeed, at this very moment I am ploughing through over 150,000 words of interview and focus group transcripts using template analysis.

    My own view is that internal communication practitioners should be more active in combining keeping employees informed with giving them a say about what goes on. This is what I call ‘informed employee voice’. If this was practised in a more systematic way it would go some way to establishing a more collaborative, community like, organisational culture.

    Further information on template analysis: http://www.hud.ac.uk/hhs/research/template-analysis/

  16. Kevin, I never meant to say you said workers were less engaged than in the past. I wanted to say (and didn’t do it clearly) that I was quite certain – and sociological and cultural trends and evidence and the state of the global economy makes it quite clear – that they are not. Whereas you had written words to the effect the jury was out.

    I also wanted to say that I don’t think, as many pretend, that we can – or should – calibrate the “quality” of relationships (think how dumb and wrong it would be to apply such an approach to one’s kids, spouse or neighbours). In education – for instance – the authorities have become obsessed with measuring “satisfaction” levels as if that were a measure of the quality of education received or as if that – as is in getting satisfaction – were the purpose of getting an education. Today, I maintain the obsession with measurement often prevents us from seeing clearly the obvious (under our nose stuff) by making things opaque or muddled.

    I’m not writing this up to maintain I have all the answers. What I’m trying to do is pose some of the issues I feel are important and which are often often overlooked (and in Japan we have glimpse of where we might be headed and it is not inspiring).

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