Organisations are places where people from a range of backgrounds are all working in tandem to produce products or provide services within a complex web of individuals and tasks.
Undoubtedly, things will sometimes go wrong. As a Consultant, I see the majority of problems encountered within companies boiling down to a communication issue somewhere – whether it be from top-down or bottom-up.
When communication fails at work, it can have devastating implications for employee engagement, productivity, and how people (and customers) perceive leaders and the company as a whole.
Let’s take the recent misunderstanding around social media policy at the BBC, for example. It not only triggered a public breakdown in communication between employer and employee, but also sparked national debate on freedom of speech and impartiality.
If you somehow missed the story, or need a refresher: well-known BBC Sports commentator and presenter Gary Lineker recently tweeted a scathing criticism of proposed UK government refugee policy that came into conflict with the BBC’s political impartiality guidelines for its presenters.
The company’s response: suspend Lineker for breaching the guidelines.
The explanation (as told to The Independent): “Lineker is following the letter of his contract, but not the spirit of the rules imposed on presenters.”
The repercussions of poor communication
And there’s the rub: Lineker was expected to follow both the written guidelines of his BBC contract (which the company admitted he did) in addition to the “spirit” of another set of rules which were not clearly applied to his position as a sports pundit.
As a freelance employee, Lineker understood that he had tweeted his views on his personal Twitter account with no affiliation to the BBC. However, as his employer, the BBC understood that whilst this was acceptable under the BBC’s written rules regarding social media, it was not in keeping with the expected ‘spirit’.
In the days that followed Lineker’s suspension, several other sports commentators sided with their colleague and chose not to come in to work as a sign of solidarity, thus creating further controversy and chaos for the broadcaster.
After nearly of a week of intense scrutiny and pressure from both the public, media, and its own presenters/pundits, the BBC reversed its decision to suspend Lineker and announced a review into its social media policy going forward.
This scenario added more fuel to the fire for existing calls to investigate the BBC’s internal practices, and for the leadership team to resign.
How the BBC could have reacted
Sadly, as a consequence of the company’s reaction to Lineker’s tweet, trust likely has been eroded between management and employees.
The BBC’s employer brand has taken a hit too, as much of their staff and the public now perceive the broadcaster to be a hostile or toxic working environment.
For others, the company was right and Lineker should have remained suspended, or even dismissed, for his tweet.
Regardless of one's personal views on the matter, it’s helpful to reflect on the drama to see what can be learned from it in a business sense, particularly with regards to employer-to-employee communication.
For instance, let’s say the BBC chose instead to communicate the ‘breach’ in policy internally and sensitively to Lineker and the rest of their workforce on the day of the incident. This could solve the issue of avoiding (or at least abating) the public controversy that came after, but it does not adequately tackle the cause of the misunderstanding that led to the tweet being published in the first place – i.e. the ambiguity within their impartiality policy.
Tips for reducing ambiguity in your communication
1. Examine strategy and policy
Consider whether all the rules, guidelines or wider strategies in your organisation need any updating so that the expectations of employees are clear and easily understood by everyone at all levels of the company.
- How may the policy/guidance/strategy be interpreted by different individuals and groups we have here?
- Would people know how what is written applies to themselves and their team?
- In circumstances where policy does not apply to certain roles, has this also been made clear to everyone?
2. Check people’s understanding
Once your strategy and/or policy has been updated (hopefully ambiguity-free!), it shouldn’t merely be released into the wild and forgotten about.
To maximise understanding, communicate this to employees via a variety of mediums and channels. Then regularly revisit and reinforce the message to everyone throughout the year.
We recommend using an approach that mixes written strategy/policy pieces with short-form videos, nutshell presentations, emails straight to employees, and dissemination by cascading down management hierarchies.
By presenting everyone with these various avenues to understand the updates you’ve made – and delivered this to people over a longer period than just in a single instance – you’ll reach the majority of your workforce and maximise their understanding of the change.
3. Open dialogue as to why a breach has occurred.
On the occasion where an employee has breached any rules or guidelines of the organisation – and the breach itself is not harmful to the extent that the employee, their colleagues and wider organisation need immediate protection – it’s crucial that a dialogue is opened with that person before rushing into disciplinary action.
Begin by explaining why the rule is in place, how it was breached, and what the implications are of the breach. Then allow discussion to take place so that the employee has an opportunity to explain their actions.
4. Communicate what has happened to colleagues
Unfortunately, it appears many of Lineker’s colleagues found out about his suspension from the media rather than from their employer.
When disciplinary action has been decided on, colleagues of the employee must be appropriately informed of what has happened in a timely manner to avoid conjecture and mistrust.
People will inevitably also wonder what this means for their own roles and how the policy applies to them, especially if they do not fully understand it.
In your communication, take the opportunity to reinforce the updated policy to employees, and provide an avenue for anonymous questions to be asked so that everyone can feel comfortable to address their concerns.
5. Regularly review policy
As a result of the fallout from Lineker’s tweet, the BBC has announced that an independent review of their social media policy will be conducted, and make sure it accounts for all types of employees.
One way the company could approach this is to involve employees in the process. By doing so, the BBC would be more likely to successfully uncover any instances of confusion within its policy text, whilst also encouraging greater employee buy-in for the policy itself.
How well understood is your organisation’s policy? Find out what employees think about communication and more with our anonymous Trust Index employee survey.