Everything You Thought About Communicating With Your Employees Is Wrong

The role of HR in an increasingly connected world.

At the height of the insider trading scandal that eventually landed his boss in jail, Martha Stewart Omnimedia VP of HR Ron Thomas was greeted at the elevator one morning by an employee with a startling insight. She said “I don’t think employees should have to go home and watch the news to find out what is going on inside of the company they work at every day.” She was right—and Mr. Thomas knew it.

Over the ensuing days, Mr. Thomas and his team convened focus groups to gauge employee concerns about the company’s future, and that of their jobs. They then addressed each and every one of those issues during a roadshow that engaged every area of the company at every level. As developments continued to break, they shared the implications with every internal audience just as aggressively.

When the TV department was put on hiatus, significant layoffs were in the offing. The HR team responded by reaching out to other stations across the greater New York area and requesting information about any available openings. They emailed the list company-wide and took myriad other steps to ensure that everyone landed on their feet. While not everyone did, there was no question about the company’s commitment to its people. Thanks in large part to Mr. Thomas’ efforts, his talented team returned nearly intact when Martha Stewart Living returned to the air.

To this day, the episode stands as a shining example of the ways in which HR must think differently in an age when business threats emerge from all angles—and often from within. And it isn’t just new approaches to employee relations or other traditional responsibilities that are needed. Today, HR has an integral role to play in everything from branding to risk management to innovation. Here’s how:

Everything is transparent.
The king has no new clothes. Look no further than the recent firing of Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice for evidence of that. Back in the fall, HR, along with university lawyers, made the decision to merely suspend him. What were they thinking? They were concerned with Rice’s contract and never entertained the possibility that the video of his abusive behavior might go public, let alone viral. When it did—as is almost always the case in this transparent age—Rice wasn’t the only employee handed his walking papers.

What business are we in?
Kodak is reeling because it thought it sold film; not memories; Blockbuster is gone because it thought it rented videotapes and DVDs; not entertainment. Radio Shack should have led the digital revolution and become Apple stores years before Apple. BlackBerry has taken nearly a decade to understand that the engineers who drive the company aren’t a very large group of customers. Technological advancement has dictated a need for HR to begin every day by asking “What business are we in?” Hint: It is not what you thought.

Are you ready for your close up?
Online video has the combined benefits of 1) establishing powerful and emotional connections with your audience (job seekers), and 2) being 56 times more effective when it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Nothing gets you found and communicates culture like video. How have you revolutionized your video recruitment efforts this year?

Managing enterprise risk.
Corporate risk officers too often see themselves as historians. They need to be meteorologists—always looking ahead and anticipating the issues that might land the company in hot water. When hiring your risk management team, ensure that they are equipped to see around corners and predict what’s coming next. The game isn’t about learning from your last crisis; it about ensuring you’re ready for the next one.

Yes we can… maybe.
87 percent of CEOs report in the interview process that they can handle a crisis. As a crisis counselor, I can tell you that’s not the case. When hiring top executives, HR departments need to stress the importance of established crisis credentials to the board—and ensure that directors and search consultants put every candidate through role play exercises that provide insight into how they will respond when their leadership is needed most.

Outsourcing—the new, new math.
Most companies assume that outsourcing is cheaper; but is that really the case? What does it cost to effectively manage overseas manufacturers and ensure they are sticking to increasingly stringent quality and safety standards? How much are you spending to get your products to the point of sale? How much are you losing due to the production delays? The outsourcing question isn’t just about reputational issues related to American jobs; it’s about the new math that is driving an in-sourcing revolution.

Digital expertise has nothing to do with IT.
The only similarity between your IT and digital communications staff should be that they both use computers. All too often, I speak with business leaders who confuse the disciplines; even though doing so is akin to mistaking a NASCAR pit crew for the driver. Today, IT is about ensuring the efficacy and security of your networks, software, and hardware. Digital is all about your brand, reputation, and effectively managing the face you show to the world.

Data loss.
No company is immune to data loss theft. At some point, every one will fall victim to a crash, breach, or hack. That means HR needs to think differently about how it manages and protects the troves of employee data under its control. How is your data cornered off from malicious or mischievous interests? What are the best practices for ensuring total privacy and security? What will you do if your sensitive information goes public? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’re likely not ready for your data loss moment.

[Image: Flickr user Nagesh Jayaraman]

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