What Do Your Employees Hear?: A Lesson From My First Grader

The month of July faded in a haze of airplanes, lost passports (surely a story for another blog), and busier than usual clients…all good things, well except for the lost passport, but summer slipped away before I realized it! Somehow we are already at the end of August, school has started and the leaves of those first trees that line Lexington Avenue are threatening some fall color. I had prepared to discuss another topic in my August blog, but something happened this morning in the car pool line that changed my mind. This year, I have a first grader and a fourth grader, and their school is implementing a new discipline strategy. As we slowly crawled through the line this morning, my first grader offered, “Mom, did you know that now if you get two warnings on the same day, your teacher sends you to a mirror?” While I considered how different this new disciplinary strategy really may be, my fourth grader, with great irritation in her voice said, “No, you get a reflection sheet…”

After I composed myself, I started thinking about that first grade teacher and how I was certain as she dutifully went through the consequences and read the portion about the “reflection sheet,” she would never have guessed that my dear daughter had understood she would be sent to stare at herself in a mirror as a consequence.

Fall is a time of new beginnings for many of us. Not only do our children start school, but I also find that many employers seek to implement new policies, explain new procedures and set a new tone after employees and management return from vacations. Fall is one of my busiest times reviewing handbooks, drafting new policies, and discussing new strategies with human resources professionals.

However, just implementing a new policy without explanation and appropriate communication is rarely enough. For one, as demonstrated above, merely reading a policy may give employees vastly different impressions of the intention of the policy, the way the policy will be enforced, and the reasons for the policy. As many of you have heard me say before, an employee’s perception is key in motivating employees and in avoiding lawsuits. The perception of a new policy or procedure will be set primarily not by what the policy says, but by how the policy is communicated and what employees are told about the policy. Here are five pointers for effectively communicating a new policy to employees:

1.    Explain Why You Need it. The need for a new policy may be abundantly clear to you, but don’t assume it is to other employees. They do not see what you see. A great example of this occurred in a recent board meeting I attended. The leadership of the board had decided on a new initiative for the organization. However, the initiative was announced without an explanation from the leadership as to why it was important. As a result, the discussion that ensued two meetings later (think of the lost time and energy!) revealed that without an explanation from leadership, members of the board had come up with wildly different ideas about why the initiative was implemented and what that meant. A simple clear explanation even of the obvious (to you) is key.

2.    Describe the Terms. Don’t just read the policy, explain what it says. For example, if the teacher above had explained that a reflection sheet is a piece of paper that describes your behavior and requires a parent signature, I don’t think my child would have been thinking about a mirror. Before you introduce a new policy, sit down with it and really read it – word for word. Consider the different employee populations to whom you will be presenting and their knowledge base within the company. Does the policy contain terms or procedures that may be foreign to a particular employee population? Does the policy substitute a new term for a more common one (e.g., a reflection sheet is really a note to your mom and dad)? Ask these questions prior to the training and include the appropriate explanations in the training on the front end. Explaining the first time is always easier than fighting ingrained assumptions.

3.    Give Examples. Many people learn best by example. When you present a new policy or procedure to your employees give examples of the behaviors you are seeking to change and how those behaviors are detrimental to the company. If papers, forms, or other tangible objects are involved – show them. If a new procedure is required, demonstrate it. Showing instead of merely telling will greatly increase the effectiveness of the policy.

4.    Do It Yourself. Management that rules by “do as I say, not as I do” will rarely be effective. Sometimes the most important part of a policy or procedure implementation is the leadership by example displayed by HR, managers and other key employees. Depending on your organization’s structure this may involve rolling out a new policy to supervisors first to get their buy-in prior to rolling it out to the rest of the workforce. Whatever the proper strategy for your organization, make sure that leadership is ready to comply first.

5.    Monitor the Results. Granted, this one can’t happen at the time of the communication, but you can tell your employees that you will be monitoring the results of the policy and then follow through. Better to have no policy than an ineffective or detrimental one. As shocking as it is to me every time I have to learn this lesson, it remains an inevitable truth: people don’t always respond the way we think they will. What we think will be the answer to solving a company problem may do no good at all or even make the problem worse. So, after you implement a new policy, check back in and determine if it is producing the results you expected. Go back to number 1 – why did you need the policy in the first place? Is the policy solving the problem? Has it created new ones? Telling your employees you will be monitoring the results and paying attention to whether the problem is solved and if other problems are created demonstrates that you care about the company and them and may sooth some of the more skeptical.

Of course, no amount of explanation will cure a poorly drafted policy, but no amount of good drafting will convince employees of the need for a poorly communicated policy. Good communication goes hand in hand with good drafting. You may choose to discuss the best way to communicate a policy with those drafting it (legal counsel, other managers, a committee, etc.). Often they will see areas for potential confusion that you may not.

The bottom line is that no one likes change – good, bad or indifferent. The more you can do to explain the need for change, how it will occur, and the benefits of it in the beginning, the more likely you are to effectuate it.

Now, I’m going to celebrate the fact that since my daughter didn’t understand the consequence of a second warning, clearly she hasn’t received one yet – and the first week of school has passed!

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