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BirdsEye View

employee communications in turbulent times
Even the strongest of banks today has a communication challenge.  Both employees and customers are jittery as bank failures mount and bank losses make headlines daily.  Bank management teams are torn:  how much should they share with their employees?  Say too much and fear of failure might arise; say too little and employees will have unrealistic views of the bank’s situation.
 
At a recent HR Forum the topic was discussed at length.  HR executives from both public and private banks discussed best practices, and I’d like to share some of those with you.
 
My first thought is:  The disclosure difference between public and private companies should not apply to employee communications.  Helping our people deal with uncertainty and the negative image the banking industry suffers in America today is essential.  Employees notice the devastation of the stock price and can’t help but be concerned.  Many own bank stock in their retirement plans and watch their net worth evaporate.  It is a serious morale issue.  Some bank employees are simply shell shocked from the demise of their assets, reputation and short-term earnings prospects. 
 
CEOs advise to face the problem heads on.  They recommend candor and openness.  Direct communication is best.  Avoid email at all costs.  Frequent town-hall meetings, monthly bank-wide employee calls are all excellent ways to open lines of communications between executive management and its people.  Our employees are bombarded with questions by customers, and they are not always well equipped to respond. 
 
A recent article in the Southwest in-flight magazine by the company’s CEO talked to the value of town hall meetings, something I experienced first-hand during my time as a bank executive.  They call it “Message to the Field” where the CEO talks with employees about the previous year and what the coming year will hold.  Gary Kelly, the CEO, says he finds these “State Of The Company” meetings a great way to kick off the year.  Management uses this opportunity to celebrate its employees and bond further with one another.  Employees use the opportunity to ask anything they want.  Management kicks of the meeting with a few remarks, but the meat of the conversation is Q&A.  I found that encouraging employees to write down their questions and pile them up on a table is a good way to achieve candor and build management credibility.  Employees can ask whatever they want without identification, and management does not pre-screen the questions to handle only what they wish to talk about.  Plus, this is a great tool to find out what’s on people’s minds.
 
Doing town halls this way is risky, because employees will ask the darnedest questions, from “What’s up with the stock price?” to “how many free drinks will we have at the holiday party this year?”.  Even so, these questions are invaluable.  As Kelly says, “I want to know what’s on employees’ minds.  Most of the time I think I’m in touch with what’s going on, but you never know”.
 
Executive management will be well served to err on the side of disclosure to employees and to use every opportunity to directly and openly communicate with them.  Trust is rapidly eroding in our system.  Candor can help restore it and strengthen the bond between employees and their bank.  Share the tough news with the people, but also tell them more about the road to recovery and their role in executing the path.  Plus, recognize that you can’t have teamwork without communication. You can’t talk with each other enough, and you can’t listen to each other enough.
 
Executive management will be well served to err on the side of disclosure to employees and to use every opportunity to directly and openly communicate with them.  Trust is rapidly eroding in our system.  Candor can help restore it and strengthen the bond between employees and their bank.  Share the tough news with the people, but also tell them more about the road to recovery and their role in executing the path. 
 
To summarize, in the words of Peggy Eddens, HR Director for WSFS Bank:
 
-      Start by simply telling the truth, no spin, no posturing the message, just the truth
 -     Communicate and then re-tell what you said in another communication; it takes more that once for the message to really take hold
 -     Use context to ground your message; peer banks, local landscape, national economy, etc.
 -     Visibly support your communication; don't hide behind the message...be visible and accessible so you can "look them in the eye" and discuss further, if requested
 -     Tie your message into your values, business model, vision and mission whenever you can do so
 -     Even in delivering difficult messages, try to find something good to say, something to motivate or inspire
 -     And always end on a note of hope, optimism and opportunity
 
In this environment you can’t over-communicate to customers and employees.  Make sure both groups are engaged, and re-recruit them to become your best ambassadors in the communities you serve.