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"They treat us like f**king ants"​: Why internal communication matters

"They treat us like f**king ants."


This is what I overheard as I passed a construction site this morning.


As a professional communicator, and a naturally nosy person, I slowed my pace to hear more.


“Just because I’m out here laying pavers doesn’t mean I don’t want to know what’s going on in my own company. I looked like an idiot last week at the pub when some random knew more than me about what was going on with the sale. I looked like a bloody idiot mate. Don’t know why I bother.”


There is so much wrapped up in those comments from an internal communication perspective.


Do you remember that story about the janitor at NASA? I'm paraphrasing here but, when asked what he did for a living, he simply said that he helped put a man on the moon.


Now that's an engaged employee!


Let’s think about that from the perspective of these two labourers and their company.

It's clear from their conversation that there are some internal changes happening, not least of which the rumoured sale of the company.


A sale or any other commercial in confidence deal undoubtedly comes with its internal communication challenges. However, too many companies tend to err on the side of silence in these situations.


There is always something that can be communicated to your employees, even if it simply acknowledging that there is truth to the rumours and letting them know that due to commercial sensitivities there can't be any detailed discussions at this stage.

People just want to know they aren’t being kept in the dark deliberately and usually just want to know what to say when asked outside the workplace about these situations.


Our mate feeling like he knew less than “some random at the pub” is a perfect example of where a little information could have been so empowering for an employee.

Here are three change management tips I’ve picked up over the years when it comes to internal communications:


1. Never communicate on a need to know basis only


I can hear you saying, “but Kim, sometimes you have to communicate on a need to know basis due to the nature of the project.”

Yes, depending on the context, you may need to keep detailed information to a pre determined set of stakeholders, however I would argue that there are very few situations where top line messages can’t also be communicated to those who “don’t need to know.”


Being kept out of the loop can make for disgruntled, and sometimes publicly so, employees. A simple way to address this during a significant internal change is to have a rolling agenda item as the last item on your project team meeting agenda. Ask yourselves as a group, what can we say to all staff about today’s discussions?

Let’s make the default what can be said as opposed to what cannot be shared.


2. Never assume lack of interest


We are sometimes very good at putting people in their department or role buckets and forgetting that they are also in the wider company bucket. Plan for minimal interest in your engagement strategies but never assume lack of interest in any internal news or change. Your employees can be your best brand ambassadors with many people not only taking pride in what they do each day but also taking pride in the company that employs them and their colleagues.


By encouraging regular engagement across the board in organisational change, you may be able to build a stronger foundation for change in tough times. Those employees you “see” today may just be your company’s best defender tomorrow.


3. Never underestimate social connections


Every internal communication you make is an external communication. Now, for those of you who questioned me in point one, this is not an excuse to baton down the hatches and stay silent in times of change.


It is merely a reminder that we are human beings who talk to each other outside our workplace structures. Your employees may know people on the other side of the company sale who have received more information than them. Your employees may have personal and social connections to internal decision makers or project team members.


People will talk in times of change. When planning your internal communications, think about everyday spoken conversations that may take place internally or externally and give people what information you can throughout the change process.

It is always better for your employees to be empowered to have informed conversations, even if it is just correcting misinformation by old mate at the pub.


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