Five Principles for Employee Communications

During twenty years in the communications profession the most principled folks I’ve met are those in employee communications. So why write about principles for them? If you’re an internal or employee communication practitioner you know that having a set of principles rendered explicitly can promote meaningful discussion about what you can do to help stakeholders advance their agenda with employees. While certainly there is an individual nature to principles, the following five principles, developed with my teams at Bloomberg LP and IBM have helped guide the successful creation and implementation of countless communication plans. These principles are not a description of skills, editorial strategy or even what it is that employee communication teams should do, but rather a list of principles that guide my praxis of employee communication.

1. Data-driven and measurable
Employee communication should be data-driven and measurable. Typically, you can readily obtain information that allows you to make assertions about causality and requisite improvements to your tactics. For example, “Hey team, when we send the email out on Friday afternoon, we get fewer clicks to our internal education page and therefore fewer signups for classes; let’s try sending it on Wednesday next week.” As your program evolves, probe your stakeholders on their desired business outcomes and build your programs accordingly. It’s not uncommon to hear awareness as a desired outcome, but the experienced practitioner knows how difficult awareness is to measure and knows objectives related to the business itself create greater significance.

Even when data is scarce or unreliable, get obsessed with it. We changed the structure of our weekly meetings to include a segment dedicated to data. This simple shift allowed us to analyze data together, engage as a team toward a unified vision transforming what was once only a spreadsheet, into a powerful data management platform.

2. Personal, Specific and Actionable
This principle posits something easier said than done: employees should be exposed to relatable communication that tells them what they need to do. This sounds elementary, but many senior leaders in companies deluge employees with unnecessary information. This speaks directly to the widely held (and false) belief that awareness is a business outcome. Emails, posters, execu-speeches, intranet articles, videos, community sites etc. should all be made as personal as possible and explicitly state the action expected of the employee.

One other note here: I have repeatedly looked at data from companies and organizations and found that emails from humans that have lightweight personalization outperform automated emails. Have your executives and program owners send out notes from their own email IDs. In most corporate email environments you can limit the recipients’ ability to reply — but when possible, let employees reply to the exec and you will have won another important employee communications battle: shortening the feedback loop.

3. Sensitivity to employee time and attention
Sensitivity to employee time and attention follows step two, because they’re inseparable – really they’re both dimensions of the same higher principle: respect employees. Fundamentally, there is a calculus made every time we interrupt an employee with some kind of communication – is this interruption going to be a net organizational gain compared to the productivity lost during time spent internalizing the communication and taking action? The best organizations are run by leaders who consider their employees in terms greater than the cost of their wage; the worst are run by those who believe any communication from management warrants immediate interruption and response.

There is also the issue of flow; when people achieve flow – that is, the transcendent feeling of timelessness due to being engaged in satisfying work – they feel their work and life are meaningful. Here at Bloomberg, we’ve mapped a spectrum of channels that represent our employee communications platform and juxtaposed it with our estimation of the human attention span to estimate value compared to cost. This tool shows stakeholders why we choose mechanisms for specific communications and omit others. This is especially useful when we have a stakeholder demanding a multi-channel approach to a project that may not add value when factoring in our colleagues’ ability to concentrate on meaningful work.

4. Collaborative and enabling
Employee communication budgets are not generally rising. This means we have to be entrepreneurial if we are going to scale the impact of our teams on our organizations. To this end, modern content management systems have effective permissioning levels – let’s use them to enable more authentic voices in the employee communication. During my tenure as the Editor in Chief of IBM’s intranet, I brought our universe of content contributors from a couple dozen to more than a thousand. We maintained quality by forming communities of practice around the work, appealing to employees’ desire to learn new skills and have a voice in the company…and much of that happened before blogs.

Another dimension of being collaborative is honing our ability to suspend our agendas, deeply understand the business imperatives and effectively reach our audiences and communities. Empathy may be the most important characteristic of designing effective communications.

5. Creatively designed
Good design makes use of data reflecting real human behaviors and improves with every iteration. Good design makes the designed experience feel like it was made just for me while respecting my time and gets me to my desired outcome quickly. Good design also shows me who is in the experience with me and allows us to easily connect.

As communicators, we need to be able to recognize good design; sometimes, great design denotes luxury, other times expediency. Behold the stunning dashboard of a $150,000 Bentley on the one hand and the harmonious utility of an OXO Goodgrips vegetable peeler in the other. Just because your intern knows his way around Photoshop doesn’t mean he’s your guy for the job. Good design is priceless.


Ethan McCarty is the Global Head of Employee and Innovation Communications for Bloomberg LP. Follow his blog at www.ethanmccarty.com, on LinkedIn and twitter @ethanmcc.

Posted in [Blog], [Research Library], Employee / Organizational Communication.

4 Comments

  1. Respecting your employees’ time, priorities, and limited attention spans is essential to connecting with them. It’s important to remember that most employees are fully grown adults and deserve to be communicated with that way.

  2. Ethan — The point about limited employee time is especially key…..and forgotten by leaders, many times. More is usually less.

  3. Ethan – Love the emphasis on respect and empathy for employees – particularly in a time when all are striving to maintain priority and focus in an ever-more divergent environment. Thanks for sharing sound foundational principles.

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