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Communicating When You Don’t Have All The Answers

HR professionals are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place these days as they attempt to communicate with employees about impending legislative and policy changes that may affect their healthcare coverage, their benefit options, and more. Employees want answers, but HR and company leaders often don’t have those answers. How can you successfully respond to employee questions and address concerns in an era of uncertainty?

Work to Build a Climate of Openness and Trust Always

The best time to work at building a strong climate of openness and trust—one where employees feel comfortable asking even the toughest questions and where they trust the answers they receive—is before the need for sensitive communication exists. When employees know they can trust their leaders and HR representatives to be straightforward and honest with them, they’re more likely to accept “no-response responses” like “we don’t know right now, but we’ll let you know when we do.”

Develop Multiple Channels for Two-Way Communication

While HR and organizational leaders will often have messages that they will be sending to employees via various channels, it’s important that employees also have the opportunity to share information, to ask questions and to seek information. Two-way communication channels like suggestion boxes (even the “old-fashioned kind,” online chat rooms and open door policies help to ensure that employees have the information they need—and that leaders and HR professionals have a finger on the pulse of employees interests and concerns.

Be Transparent

While not all information can be shared, it’s important to be transparent about why. For instance, for publicly held organizations some information of a material nature must be carefully guarded to avoid running afoul of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) guidelines. In regulated industries—like banking, healthcare or the energy industry—other rules and regulations may govern when certain information may not be released.

It’s important for employees to understand, though, the restrictions that the company may face and why those restrictions exist. And, of course, to trust that when the time is right, they’ll receive the information they need.

Keep Track

It’s important to stay on top of the types of questions and issues that concern employees regardless of how they emerge. Devise ways of easily capturing their information—through technology or through management feedback channels. This can provide you with insights about issues that are of concern—and help you avoid overly focusing on issues that really aren’t of that great concern to employees.

Tracking these inputs can also help you arm managers and leaders with FAQs and responses that can help them respond to questions that employees may be asking.

Let Your Employees Be “The First to Know” Whenever Possible

Employees are an important audience for any organization. When they feel respected and important they’ll serve the company well. Whenever possible, make sure that your employee audience is one of, if not the, first to hear any important message. Employees don’t like to be blindsided by friends, neighbors or relatives who ask them questions about information they’ve heard on the news that employees weren’t aware of. Arming them with that information can help them spread the company message accurately.

Recognize That Employees Are All Part of a Larger Communication Ecosystem

Employees “get it” so give them credit for being aware of the bigger picture related to many of the issues that impact them. Employees know, for instance, that the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) is up in the air right now. Consequently, they understand that you don’t have answers. They know when the economy is declining, when competitors enter the market—and when business is booming.

Give them credit for that awareness and take advantage of the opportunity to build your messaging based on the broader messages that employees have already been exposed to.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say, “We Don’t Know”

Finally, don’t be afraid to say, “we don’t know.” Sometimes you simply don’t. Being open about these situations, and ensuring that employees trust that when you do know, you’ll provide them with the information they need, build trust.

Follow Up!

While it’s okay to not always have all the answers, it’s also important that when you do learn the answer you share that information with employees as soon as possible.

Ask for Feedback

On a regular basis, perhaps annually, ask employees for feedback on how you’re doing at providing them with the information they need. Do they feel that the organization communicates with them effectively? Do they believe that management and the HR department is open and transparent with them? Do they trust the messages they receive from the organization? What issues do they feel most/least educated/aware of?

The answers to these questions can help you identify areas of opportunity for improvement to ensure that the communication climate in your organization remains positive—even when you don’t have all the answers.

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