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Communications

What should be communicated?

Communication is a two-way process which requires information to flow up from employees as well as down from managers. Managers need to communicate information to employees about:

  • contractual terms and conditions of employment
  • the job and its performance
  • the organisation's performance, progress and prospects
  • changes to any of the above issues.

Employees will also have concerns and points they wish to raise about their jobs and the organisation and there should be provision for communicating this information up the line.

Information about conditions of employment

Information about pay and conditions of employment is essential to all employees. Employers are required by law to give employees written statements specifying the main contractual details within two calendar months of the commencement of employment. Employers must also notify employees in writing of any alteration in their pay and conditions within one month of the changes taking place.

The information to be included in a written statement is described in the BERR booklet PL700 Written statement of main terms and conditions of employment, obtainable free of charge from offices of the Jobcentres(1). The written statement must cover all the main details of pay and conditions including, for example, pay, hours of work, holidays, length of notice of termination and any disciplinary rules. The exemption for small firms to provide disciplinary rules does not apply after 1 October 2004. The written statement must also set out the employee's terms and conditions in full; it is not sufficient (except for certain items(2) to refer the employee to some other document such as an employee handbook.

Some contracts of employment include important terms and conditions additional to those that must be set out in a written statement for example: time-off arrangements and use of company cars. Future difficulties can be avoided if such terms and conditions are also given to the employees in writing.

When providing employees with information on disciplinary rules and procedures, employers are advised to consult the Acas pdf  Code of Practice - Disciplinary and grievance procedures [1Mb] . The Code urges employers to make every effort to ensure that employees know and understand the disciplinary rules that apply and are aware of the likely consequences of breaking those rules. Such explanations and full coverage of the subject should be included in the induction programme of new employees(3).

Employers are also required by law to give employees itemised pay statements whenever payments are made. The statements should cover such detail as gross amount of pay, amounts of any fixed deductions and the net amount of pay. The detailed requirements are set out in the BERR explanatory booklet PL704 Itemised pay statements, obtainable free of charge from offices of the Jobcentres.

Information about the job

Employees need a wide range of job-related and operational information about:

  • the workplace
  • work objectives and performance
  • operating and technical instructions
  • health and safety
  • who is who, where they are and what they do.

Work objectives and performance targets are key items of information and need to be communicated clearly if misunderstandings are to be prevented.

Employees require general information, not covered elsewhere, about their workplace, especially when just starting. On joining, and also when subsequent changes take place, they need to be told about arrangements relating to:

  • working conditions
  • supervision and management
  • administrative procedures
  • training and development
  • equal opportunities
  • social and welfare facilities.

It is particularly important that employees are informed of any arrangements for trade union representation and the relevant negotiating and consultative machinery. Such information should be provided to new employees as part of their induction(4). The outcome of negotiations needs to be conveyed quickly to each employee and synchronised by management and trade unions.

Information is also required by shop stewards and other trade union officials about arrangements such as:

  • time off for trade union duties and activities
  • access to management, members and recruits
  • collection of union dues or subscriptions, for example: check-off arrangements.

Such arrangements should be covered by written agreements negotiated with the appropriate recognised trade union.

Operating and technical instructions given to employees should cover the:

  • work to be carried out
  • method(s) to be used in undertaking the work
  • use of equipment, machinery and materials
  • standards to be met
  • health and safety precautions to be observed
  • reporting procedures.

To avoid errors or misunderstandings, managers - including supervisors - should give clear instructions and support them with full explanations where necessary.

Careful attention should be given to the provision of information on health and safety matters. Employers have a statutory obligation to consult with employees on health and safety matters. They must also provide information necessary for safety representatives or employees to participate fully in the consultation and for representatives to carry out their functions(5).

Job instructions and information are not enough. Employees also need to know how well they are doing in relation to what is expected of them both on an individual and workgroup basis. Managers and supervisors should provide information about work objectives and performance and discuss these with all who report to them. Managers should be fully familiar with work-related and other factors affecting performance to ensure effective discussions.

Information about the organisation

Employees have a strong interest in what is happening in the organisation. Information going beyond matters of direct and personal relevance which should be given to employees will vary according to whether the organisation is in the private or the public sector, in manufacturing, construction or services, and on its size and structure. Management should normally report to all employees on the organisation's:

  • objectives and policies
  • past and present performance and progress
  • future plans and prospects.

Under these broad headings information can be given about:

  • financial performance
  • management and staff changes
  • state of the market and order book
  • changes in products or services
  • developments in technology and methods
  • mergers
  • investment.

The emphasis should be on successes and problems and the reasons for them. This information should be provided as part of a regular programme. When successes are achieved employees need to be told promptly; similarly they should be given early warning of problems. In times of trouble good communications assume particular importance and bad news is usually best conveyed by a senior rather than junior manager.

In most organisations information on performance will normally contain financial data about:

  • sales
  • income and expenditure
  • turnover
  • profit and loss
  • assets and liabilities
  • cash flow
  • return on investment
  • added value.

Much of this information has to be made public by law - for example in the Annual Report to Shareholders of a public or private company - and is indirectly available to employees. Often it is not readily understood in this form and may be misinterpreted by employees and, indeed, by managers: it is therefore best presented in a carefully explained separate employee report.

Special efforts are needed by management to provide information about performance, progress and prospects in subsidiary companies, private companies or partnerships, and in non-commercial organisations. Some benefits are likely to be as follows:

In subsidiary companies

  • employees frequently identify themselves with the subsidiary rather than the parent group and welcome information about 'their' company.

Private companies and partnerships

  • greater trust can be established between directors/partners and other employees.

Non-commercial organisations

  • employees are interested in comparative information about financial arrangements, activities and relevant background information. It can help their commitment to the organisation's goals.

Job security

  • is of major importance to most employees.

Changes in technology or market conditions can cause fears among employees which become exaggerated if based on rumour or false information. Advance information and discussion of the organisation's prospects can help alleviate such fears and assist employees to adapt to necessary change.

The commercial sensitivity of some information, and management fears of breaches of confidentiality, are frequently cited as obstacles to good communication about performance, progress and prospects of an organisation. This obvious need for confidentiality about specific matters rarely justifies an overall restrictive approach to communication on all commercial matters.

Where the information may affect the share price of a company, Stock Exchange regulations also prevent the organisation informing employees before the market is notified, although they may be informed simultaneously(6).

The process of employee communications
To be effective employee communications must be:

  • clear, easily understood and concise
  • presented objectively
  • in a manageable form to avoid rejection
  • regular and systematic
  • as relevant, local and timely as possible
  • open to questions being asked and answered.

A variety of communication methods will be needed, both spoken and written, direct and indirect. The mix of methods will depend mainly on the size and structure of the organisation. When setting up communications processes, it is well worth considering what use might be made of new technology. Computer-based electronic mail systems can be a useful aid to communication and their increasing availability means that they are no longer the sole preserve of large organisations.

Face-to-face methods

Face-to-face communication is both direct and swift. It should enable discussion, questioning and feedback to take place but ought to be supplemented by written material where information is detailed or complex and where records are important. When spoken methods are used it is important that:

  • the chain of communication is as short as possible
  • the frequency and timing of meetings are carefully considered
  • managers are fully briefed on their subjects and able to put them across clearly and consistently
  • opportunities are provided for questions
  • employees are given adequate information and with sufficient notice to enable them to respond properly. The main methods of formal face-to-face communications are:

Group meetings

  • meetings between managers and the employees for whom they are responsible, sometimes referred to as team briefing or briefing groups. These provide valuable opportunities for discussion and feedback on matters directly related to the workgroup and also on wider information about the organisation's progress. Opportunities for employees to contribute their ideas may arise from the use of quality circles whereby small groups of employees meet regularly to identify problems, discuss and suggest possible solutions.

Cascade networks

  • a well-defined procedure for passing important information quickly, used mainly in large or wide-spread organisations.

Large-scale meetings

  • meetings involving all employees in an organisation or at an establishment, with presentations by a director or senior manager. These are good for presenting the organisation's performance or long-term objectives; they require careful preparation but allow only limited opportunities for employee response. They should be used sparingly and need to be followed up in other ways.

Inter-departmental briefings

  • meetings between managers in different departments encourage a unified approach and reduce scope for inconsistent decision making, particularly in larger organisations.

Informal channels of oral communication obviously play a major part in the passage of information and instructions in any organisation, for example: in the course of daily work in face-to-face encounters or on the telephone. Inevitably there will be a 'grapevine'. This will pass news and information quickly, but it cannot be relied on and is likely to encourage ill-informed rumour. It must not be allowed to replace other methods of employee communications.

Written methods

Written communication is most effective where:

  • the need for the information is important or permanent
  • the topic requires detailed explanation
  • accuracy and precision in wording are essential
  • the audience is widespread or large
  • a backup is needed to oral communication
  • there is need for a permanent record.

The main methods of written communication are set out below:

Company handbooks

  • bring together employment and job-related information which employees need to know and which does not change too often, such as holiday arrangements, company rules and disciplinary/grievance procedures(7). They can be given to all employees and may also usefully include background information about the company, its policies and objectives. The handbook can also provide useful information to new employees in support of any induction process.

Employee information notes

  • inform employees about the activities and performance of their organisation. Good reports are written and presented so as to be readily understood by employees at all levels, with emphasis on their contribution and achievement. In large organisations it is often desirable to produce reports for operating divisions or local units and this enhances their impact. The use of clear illustrations is helpful in such reports provided they do not distort the information.

House journals and newsletters

  • enable factual information about an organisation to be presented on a regular basis. These usually contain a large element of social or personal news. In large organisations their production is often highly professional but even small organisations can reap benefits from well produced attractive newsletters.

Departmental bulletins

  • give information on a sectional, departmental or wider basis about specific items of general interest.

Notices

  • placed on well-situated notice-boards bring to the attention of a wide audience matters of general importance as well as items of specific interest. Care needs to be taken over location, over rights to use notice-boards and in keeping them up to date. Diagrammatic notices and signs can also be useful for communicating with employees, particularly those with limited reading ability.

Individual letters to all employees

  • can be used to give information about matters of major importance accurately and simultaneously.

Other methods

Other methods of communication include the following:

Intranets

  • information on internal computer networks can be maintained in a structured way and be easily accessible by employees.

Information points

  • a method which enables employees to listen to pre-recorded and regularly changed bulletins about matters of interest on an internal telephone system; this is normally appropriate only in
    large establishments.

Audio-visual aids

  • video, film or tape/slide presentations are particularly useful for explaining technical developments or financial performance. It is important to provide opportunity for feedback. Normally only large firms can consider producing films or video tapes, but even very small firms can make their own slide presentations without professional help.

Electronic mail

  • which is very useful for communicating with employees in scattered or isolated locations.

Special needs

Special attention should be given to ensuring information is understood by employees within a multi-racial workforce or by those who cannot read easily. It is equally important not to ignore isolated groups, for example: those on nights shifts, maintenance or sales employees working away from base, employees working largely from home and those in remote locations, or staff who work on a part-time basis. In larger organisations it is also easy to ignore individual employees such as switchboard operators, receptionists and messengers who may work in isolation.

Monitoring

Communication systems should not be taken for granted, nor should it be assumed that because information is 'sent' it is also 'received'.

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