Good communicators typically make better employers

I am sometimes asked to suggest one aspect of management which impacts more than any other on the relationship between employer and employee.

As an employment lawyer, I am sometimes asked to suggest one aspect of management which impacts more than any other on the relationship between employer and employee: having undertaken a quick mental trawl through the various (repeated) problems that I have encountered over the years, be they with regard to discipline, performance, sickness absence, re-structuring or any other aspect of managing people, one consistent recurring theme is the importance of 'communication'. For example:

  • At a 'strategic' level, do staff understand the vision and direction of the organisation for which they work, and do they feel engaged in helping to shape that vision and direction? If the answer to either question is 'no' then staff are unlikely to perform at their best;

  • Do staff clearly understand the organisation’s expected ethical and behavioural values, both as regards dealings between themselves and with regard to customers and clients? If not, discipline,  performance and customer satisfaction problems are far more likely to arise;

  • On a more personal level, does each member of staff have a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities, how these may need to evolve over time, and about how their performance will be measured?

  • How good is management at understanding and taking advantage of the various evolving methods of communication in the digital age: what are likely to be the most effective and appropriate means of engaging with staff? Should different approaches be considered to cater for different generations within an organisation’s workforce?

  • If planning and then undertaking a re-structuring exercise, has sufficient thought been given to the development and adoption of an effective communications strategy to ensure that staff understand the commercial rationale behind the proposed changes and 'buy into' such changes, at least as far as is possible?    

Perhaps one of the most difficult current challenges for an employer is to ensure that its policies and procedures keep up with the sometimes dizzying pace of change with regard to the various forms of communication within social media, including how best to exert some control over the way in which staff use social media between themselves and with customers and clients. For example, it is a long-established principle of UK discrimination law that an employer can be vicariously liable for acts of discrimination committed by one employee against another where these occur 'in the course of employment'. Aside from the fact that social media provides a wider array of means for bullying and harassment, an increasing difficulty lies in determining whether such activities fall within 'the course of employment':

  • When the early discrimination law was established in the mid-1970s, it could safely be assumed that an employer’s potential vicarious liability ended when their staff passed through the factory gates at the end of their working day: save perhaps for the odd occasion such as an annual Christmas party, vicarious liability was restricted to the shop floor;

  • Today, however, many employees undertake 'agile' working and often interact with each other from their homes and outside well-defined 'normal' hours of work: there is an understandable willingness on the part of the Courts to extend an employer's potential vicarious liability to cover such 'remote' interactions. Experience shows that employers can best safeguard against problems arising via establishing and clearly communicating a social media policy which explains that the standards of behaviour expected of staff when interacting between themselves outside of the workplace are the same as should be exhibited within the workplace, and that employees can expect to face disciplinary action for any breaches.  

There are, of course, numerous other factors which impact upon the relationship between an employer and its employees but, to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill: "jaw jaw is better than war war"!

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