Today’s workplace is a potential landmine for communications disasters, which can lead to big problems for business owners. Two primary reasons are generational challenges and technology challenges.
For the first time in history, we have 5 generations working alongside of one another, with employees ranging from their early 20’s to their 70’s or older. It’s not surprising that employees have conflicting communications expectations and behaviors.
Anne Loehr, Founder & CEO of Engage Every Age, contrasts the Millennials (born 1981-2001), Generation Xers (born 1965-1980), and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).
Technology challenges that create a Pandora’s box of headaches for business leaders include:
- Everyone is online everywhere, on their own devices.
- Consumerization of technology. Technologies that were once reserved for consumers are now proliferating the workplace which presents learning & security challenges, and creates generational divides.
- Increasingly complex social media landscape.Companies need a full time social media team to understand and have a presence on all of the required platforms, and to use them strategically for growth & brand awareness.
- Transparency of communications, with no filters.Anyone can say anything positive or negative anytime, anywhere; we are in the Yelp age of feedback.
A major pitfall of these challenges is that the Rules of Engagement regarding online office communication are still being written.
Simply hoping that employees will use good judgment when communicating digitally and online exposes the company to potential liabilities and lawsuits.
According to global law firm Proskauer, companies are taking a stand against online communications misuse.
- 70% of businesses report disciplinary action against social media misuse in the workplace.
- 36% of employers actively block access to social media sites, compared to 29% surveyed last year.
- 43% of businesses permit employees to access social media sites, a fall of 10% since Proskauer’s 2011 survey.
Especially as Millennials enter the workforce, organizations must take a proactive approach to education and risk mitigation. Millennials hold very different opinions on the importance of online privacy. While their approaches may work socially, they don’t work professionally.
I’ve compiled the essential Rules of Engagement regarding texting, emailing, and social media use.
Essential Rules for Emailing at Work
- Keep it professional & consistent. All communication represents the brand.
- Use correct grammar & punctuation. No emojis or all CAPS in business correspondence, and remember to spell-check. Remember that what you email represents the organization.
- Make your subject line clear & concise. The average corporate executive receives 200 emails a day.
- Mirror the tone and punctuation that the other party uses. This is known as “communications alignment” or “communications synergy.”
- Include a call to action, or clearly articulate what you expect. What is your intention with the email and is that clear?
- Conclude with a professional sign-off, preferably a company-wide standard signature. It’s not a text. This applies to emails sent from a mobile device as well. “Excuse me, my thumbs are still learning to type” doesn’t count.
Essential Rules for Texting at Work
- Follow your boss’s lead. Do they text at work?
- Ask permission to text. A phone number doesn’t grant you permission.
- If you do text, tell the party your name. They may not recognize your number.
- Don’t text during meetings & presentations.
- Keep it brief and professional. Remember that what you text represents the organization.
- Abbreviate judiciously & spell correctly.
- Don’t send out bad news.
- Reply promptly, with no emoticons.
Essential Rules for Using Social Media Platforms at Work
- Set your permissions to restrict anonymous stalking.
- Think twice before posting photos of yourself.
- Tread lightly with polarizing topics such as sex, religion, & politics.
- Be aware that anything you post about your company or a co-worker can go viral and will likely get back to the leadership team.
- Remember that you are under NDA/Confidentiality online & offline. Do not post proprietary information.
- Ask permission before you post a photo of a colleague.
- Assume that competitors are monitoring what you post.
- Trademark/copyright any company-owned information before posting.
Establishing firm policies regarding online and offline communication has never been more important. Employees must understand that all company communications represent the brand, and can expose a company to risk.
Heading Off Potential Problems
According to Proksauer, here are the top 5 things businesses can do to prevent problems:
- Conduct annual audits
- Make training a priority
- Identify specific risks
- Implement clear guidelines so everyone knows what is expected
- Mitigate potential damage from ex-employees
Leaders have an opportunity to mitigate risk, establish policies that protect the company, and create a culture of positive communication, trust, & collaboration in which everyone is committed to excellence
Employee terminations are one of the ugliest parts of business ownership. Whether it’s from a financially-driven layoff, a reorganization, or a performance issue, it’s never a good day at the office when there’s an involuntary separation. Terminations are expensive, costing the company about 50% – 60% of the terminated employee’s salary to refill the position.
Employers always take a short-term bottom line hit when there is a termination, especially if the employee files for unemployment or files a wrongful termination suit.
For highly visible situations, the fallout can be even worse. Fired employees can easily become damaging whistleblowers, as ex-Volkswagen employee Daniel Donovan demonstrates.
When a company terminates a volatile employee, they are potentially unleashing a poisonous can of worms. I’m not suggesting that companies retain toxic employeesout of fear for retaliation. However, it’s essential that business owners anticipate the damage an irate ex-employee can cause, and move swiftly to contain it.
Before The Termination
Terminations are rarely knee-jerk reactions for the employer, and if they are performance-based, they are rarely surprises to the employee. Prior to terminating an employee for performance, follow this HR process to legally protect the company:
- Document as much as you can. I’m a big fan of conversation recaps and email trails. Expect that an employee will have a much different perspective on how you arrived at your decision to terminate.
- Know the job description well. The job description is an essential tool in the termination process. You can not fire for performance if you can’t reach back to mutually agreed upon expectations.
- Provide coaching. This demonstrates your commitment to the employee’s success, and shows you are willing to do whatever is possible to salvage the situation.
- Provide written counseling of what is going to happen if performance is not improved. This is a form letter that the employee must sign. It spells out the problem, what the company has done to address the problem, and what the next steps will be if performance doesn’t improve.
In addition to protecting the company legally, the company must protect itself from a data breach. Immediately prior to the termination, put processes in place to shut off access to the network and to email. The IT department and HR department must work closely together to ensure all bases are covered.
During the Termination
- One of the most valuable pieces of advice I learned while runningInformation Experts for 15 years was from our outsourced HR Director Jennifer Brown, CEO of PeopleTactics: Always have a witness during a termination. The third party will eliminate a he-said-she-said scenario, which can sometimes lead to a lawsuit.
- Always keep the termination as professional as possible. “We’ve eliminated the position” is the safest termination clause. Keep the conversation focused on the steps ahead. Terminations are emotionally charged conversations, and it’s best to resist being drawn into a defensive dialog. The less an employer says, the better.
- Present the employee with a termination letteroutlining the reasons for termination, what they can expect moving forward, and any legal restrictions on them, including slanderous or damaging behavior.
After the Termination
- Be proactive with communications to all stakeholders (employees, customers, partners, etc.) as soon as possible, with simple messaging you’ve created prior to the termination.
- Activate a plan to have other employees be customer points of contact if the employee was customer-facing. This should happen immediately. For very large customers with a high strategic importance, the CEO should reach out personally.
- Don’t discuss the details of the termination with anyone. Other employees will watch to see how you handle it, and some will likely inform the terminated employee of what is happening in the office. Former employees often stay friends with current employees long after their termination, especially in the social media era. Your conduct as a leader will definitely be discussed.
- Don’t engage in an online war with an ex-employee. You will lose. They will likely post disparaging comments about the company, and maybe about you. Handle it privately, and remind them of their legal obligations to protect company information.
The tighter you can contain a toxic employee with preemptive processes and legal documentation, the more quickly the drama surrounding the termination will dissipate. It gets easier with every termination when we remember that our decisions ultimately serve the greater good of the organization.
Leadership is hard, and all leaders screw up. I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Even Steve Jobs made some colossal mistakes. Occasionally, we all show that we’re human, that we are sometimes winging it, and that we don’t have all the answers.
One of my favorite leadership experts, Seth Godin, explains that for leaders, it’s uncomfortable to say, “I want to go over there, and I’m going to be responsible for getting us over there, and no one has ever been over there, and I’m not sure how to get over there, but let’s go.” To make our visions a reality, we have to gain the trust of our followers.
Since we’re so dependent on others to move forward, it’s important to recognize the behaviors that will disengage and alienate your supporters. Here are the 9 most polarizing, destructive behaviors leaders can exhibit.
Authentic leaders stay true to what they believe. According to Harvard Business School professor and authentic leadership expert Bill George, authentic leaders remain true to their values and mission even in the face of difficulty.
They don’t waiver simply because it would be easy to do so. They can be entrusted to show up in the same way, every time, because they operate from a place of total honesty. Employees know when leaders are faking it.
- False promises.
Leaders must be careful about the carrots they dangle to motivate their employees. If a leader makes a promise, his or her employees have every right to expect follow-through.
So often, leaders share ideas in the heat of a conversation, not realizing that employees are taking every word to heart. Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There explains that when leaders offer suggestions or ideas, employees hear them as commands or promises.
Failing to deliver on a promise — no matter how large or small — will violate the trust of employees.
Employees require specificity when it comes to communicating direction. Ambiguity signals two things: 1) lack of clarity regarding direction, and 2) secrecy.
Both of these impressions drive mistrust and skepticism. The clearer you can be regarding your vision and direction, the quicker you will engage others.
- One-way communication.
In traditional, hierarchical organizations, information flowed from the top down, through a tightly controlled funnel. Employees simply did their jobs, and received the precise information that leadership wanted them to have.
Today, employees have a powerful voice. In healthy cultures, they are empowered to contribute ideas and observations. Employees have valuable feedback and want to be heard.
There are many ways to create a culture of two-way communication, including routinely soliciting anonymous feedback, and addressing it in Town Hall meetings. Your employees are your single most valuable resource for insight into what is happening in your organization.
- Personal agendas/ego-driven leadership.
Leaders require thick skins to power through setbacks and negativity. They also require strong self-confidence because of the non-believers who question their abilities, and would find pleasure in seeing them fail.
However, leaders have to check their egos at the door, and ensure they subjugate their own personal agendas to the greater good of the organization. This may be one of the most difficult behaviors to eliminate because it requires a lot of self-awareness and honesty about personal motivation.
There is no place in leadership for uncontrolled anger. It conveys fear, disrespect, lack of control, and lack of concern for those who are on the receiving end.
It is true that the stresses that accompany the leadership journey are intensive and potentially debilitating. However, it isn’t our employees’ responsibility to be our emotional sources of support, which is why it’s essential to seek out healthy options and communities of support to release or share our frustrations.
- Refusing to delegate/empower.
Leadership is a team effort. When employees join your organization and support your vision, they bring experience and skills that can move your strategy forward. It can be difficult to release control, knowing that others may not do things exactly as you would.
However, one person — or even a team of leaders in a growing organization — can’t complete all tasks. Effective delegation enables you to stay focused on what you do best, and what you love most.
Delegation not only expands your ability to get things done, and creates redundancies within your firm; it also tells your employees that you trust them. Employees want to know they are making impacts and contributions. They want to feel needed and empowered.
- An attitude of superiority/lack of appreciation.
Employees see their bosses and the C-level community very differently from they way they see themselves. In companies, there is a line of demarcation between leadership and the rest of the company, even if they leaders don’t intend to create such a division.
As our organizations grow, it’s easy for us to get disconnected from our employees. We have to be intentional about creating appreciation strategies. It takes the entire system to make the company function well, and we must constantly be re-recruiting our talent internally to keep everyone engaged through gratitude and appreciation.
- Playing favorites.
One of the most demoralizing leadership behaviors is favoritism. While every organization has “linchpins” who are essential in holding the company together, ideally organizations should aim to be “process-centric” rather than “hero-centric.”
When companies revolve around a handful of heroes, the remaining employees can begin to feel that they are disposable. To minimize dependency on heroes, companies must invest in the creation of processes so that if key people leave, there is minimal disruption on operations.
Every leader, in the course of their leadership, will invariably display one or more of these behaviors at some point. After all, we are all human, and leadership is hard.
The most important aspect of continuous improvement as a leader is self-awareness. The more self-aware we are, the more successful we will be at recognizing these destructive behaviors and correcting them, so that we may build our best organizations, and live our best lives.
A recent survey about the inefficiencies of meetings revealed that 50 percent of employees would rather watch paint dry or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) than go to a project status meeting. You feel their pain, don’t you? We’ve all suffered through unproductive, useless meetings that leave attendees crying “WHY???”
Meetings are indeed an important part of business life. In fact, a recent Gallup poll discovered that employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them. So how you can go from Zero to Hero as a meeting facilitator?
Whether your meeting is 10 minutes or an hour, and whether it’s with your customers or employees, use this 3-point checklist to ensure a positive, productive outcome for everyone.
1: Clearly define to yourself why you are holding this meeting.
Answer these questions:
- Why do you need to hold this meeting NOW?
- What’s at stake if you do not hold this meeting?
- What are you expecting from people at the end of this meeting?
- Are you prepared to hold them accountable?
2: Get the right people in the room.
You’re holding a meeting, not throwing a party. The smaller number of attendees the better. Identify who is absolutely essential to your objectives, and only include them. You can always brief a larger team later.
3: Set expectations.
Prior to your meeting:
1: Outline your expectations for the meeting. What do you want to discuss? What do you want to share? What are you expecting from the other people?
2: Share your expectations/agenda with the participants, and ask them the same questions.
3: Create a formal agenda (on paper) that combines all expectations and share with the participants.
At the beginning of the meeting:
1: Review the agenda one more time.
2: Ask if anyone has any modifications and revise accordingly.
Immediately following the meeting:
1: Follow up with a recap to include what was discussed, what issues were parked for a later time, and assigned action items.
2: Assign dates to any expected outcomes.
3: Ask participants if you missed anything in your recap.
This process works great for any kind of meeting, whether it’s a new employee check-in, a team meeting, a strategy meeting, a customer meeting, or any other meeting in which people may be showing up with misaligned expectations and objectives (which is potentially every meeting!). Setting clear expectations is one of Mark Zuckerberg’s meeting strategies as well.
1: That you know what others want and expect
2: That others want and expect the same outcomes as you do
3: That people will speak up when they are not encouraged to do so
And then there’s technology.
Finally, one administrative item. If people are attending remotely via video or phone, schedule in lead-time for you or your admin assistant prior to the meeting to ensure everything is up and running, and set a firm deadline for when people can log on.
Nothing disengages attendees faster than malfunctioning technology, and nothing disrupts the flow of a meeting faster than the constant beeping of people coming on the line. Courtesy & respect for other people’s time should always be non-negotiable in any meeting.