Policy Rollouts and Adoption – Role of Internal Communicators

All of us must be familiar with policies and guidelines such as ethics, gifting, dress code, behavior and office infrastructure among others that are foundations for any organization’s success – either as recipients of these policies or the creators.  However how, when and what needs to be communicated will determine how your employees perceive your company in terms of collaboration, involvement and leadership commitment.

artist's impression

This blog post describes some perspectives on how internal communicators can partner better with internal teams to create, communicate and drive adoption of meaningful policies.

According to me policy or guideline content creation and communication can be done at three levels –

a)      The human resources or the policy team prepares guidelines based on the need and asks employees to comply. I call this the command and control model.

b)      There are departments who understand that evolving a policy by keeping it in ‘beta’ helps improve the content over time. This is the partnership model.

c)      The most advanced method is to co-create content by inviting employees to blog or wiki the content and arrive at a document that meets both the organization need as well as the employees. I heard IBM did that with their social media policy.

There is however one more level which ‘tests’ out a policy through a focus group or a random set of employees to gauge the pulse before going public.

Policies within organizations in India in recent times have faced backlash from employees especially if they believe it directly infringes on their rights. For example, a recent Infosys social media policy met with resistance and a lot of bad press.

There are many organizations that are now increasingly looking to the third model to design and evolve their policies to overcome some of the risks attached with disengaging employees and also as a way to build community. With social media blurring the boundaries between internal and external communication organizations need to know the implications of holding the reins of control too tightly.

As part of the internal communications team I was involved recently with reviewing a company sponsored events guidelines that gives employees pointers on what they can and not expect to do at such programs held outside the premises – (if your organization doesn’t have one, maybe there is an opportunity to do so!). My role includes reviewing the tone and language, sharing ideas on communication and timing. If I strongly believe that the policy communication or the tone of voice will adversely impact morale or internal perception I request for a change.

To begin, when the policy (on my recommendation it became a guideline) reached me for communication I failed to recognize the multiple levels of reviews that the draft had already been though. Also by not understanding the context fully and looking at the draft only as messages for communication I missed adding more depth to the content.

Here are some key tips I learnt along the way – which I believe will help organizations and internal communicators improve how policy communication is perceived and valued.

Look at both sides of the coin: If internal communicators need to be effective partners we need to be involved early in the discussion to get the context, understand the business decision and also look at the policy from the employees’ perspective.

Mind your tone of voice: With the organization paranoid about legal and business implications of employee behavior the policies begin to read more like ‘listen or else’ kind of top-down messages. Rather than listing a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ step back and ask if you would honestly follow the line if you received the same message? Invite employees for a dialogue, talk about their responsibilities, value their existence as adults who respect your organization’s culture. That way you can be sure of collaboration.

Is there a generation gap issue?: Over lunch I heard this interesting insight – there is friction in organizations because those who run the show today are mostly from the baby boomers generation and the majority of your employees (if you are in the Indian IT sector for example) are from the Generations X and Y.  Unless the baby boomers (leaders) are open , learn from the new generation and in turn coach the next generation to take over leadership we will see more clashes!

Policy communication isn’t a one time activity: Remember that your employees already have a lot to do and manage beside reading and understanding policies. Have a plan to consistently reinforce messages and guidelines via face to face and other channels every quarter. Also if there is a policy that has an external facing angle involve your marketing team and ensure your employees know if it before it goes public.

Refresh your policies often: Often policies are publishes and no one bothers to revisit and upgrade based on feedback. From the Great Place to Work Conference I heard a few companies are experimenting with keeping their policies in ‘beta’ even after release. This demonstrates your openness and intent to change.

Policy or a guideline?: Sometimes we are unable to differentiate between a policy and a guideline. Guidelines are sets of best practices that are supported by consensus, best treated with common sense and could have exemptions. Policies have wide acceptance and describe standards that all users should normally follow.

Treat every policy communication as a rollout: Have a plan to communicate widely, gauge acceptance and understanding of the policy or guideline and reinforce the content often through leaders and managers.

Understand that policy creators may not be effective communicators: As the internal communicator you should be able to give and coach policy makers on ways and means of creating awareness, building credibility and garnering support for the launch or refresh of any policy.

Go upstream to value add: Often without a seat at the table when policy decisions are made internal communicators struggle to get context and therefore can’t play an effective role in communication. Join the discussion upstream and make it a point to share views for the betterment of the policy. I learnt that even if you are not a policy maker you can have a valuable opinion on crafting content.

Coming back to the guideline. It did finally go out but we ensured leaders were made responsible for sharing the content first in a conversation so that employees took it seriously and also followed them. It contains emergency numbers (an opportunity to tie it with the crisis management and business continuity functions) and provided ways in which event owners or organizers could go about their work effectively.

Interested in your thoughts….have you come across a policy or a guideline that got stuck due to differences or communication concerns?