Avoiding the “Spam” Filter with Employee Communication

One thing I know (not think–KNOW) about HR is that it’s full of people who never get out of their cave.

You need to get out of your comfort zone. Read and do things outside of the specific HR body of knowledge to be better. That’s how I found myself reading a manual by Mailchimp on how to avoid spam filters. I want to be sure that the messages I craft are not being caught by email providers and firewalls, so I spent some time checking out the guide.

But then I started thinking about our daily lives. There’s a significant amount of noise around us daily. In my role as the communications guy at work, I might be able to get around any technology-related filters, but there are plenty of verbal/human filters that will prevent my messages from arriving at their destinations with the full intent and purpose with which I sent them.

Let’s look at a few concepts on this topic and how to avoid the human filters that prevent communication from taking place. Here are some of the most common email spam issues you would see (hint: don’t include these in ANY of your communications):

  • Using spammy phrases, like “Click here!” or “Once in a lifetime opportunity!”
  • Going crazy with exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Coloring fonts bright red or green, adding lots of italics, underlined text, or bold fonts

That covers a few of the glaring problems in the written world, but what about the verbal/nonverbal conversations we have on a daily basis? Here are some ideas to consider.

  • Don’t look at your phone when you’re talking with someone. Super rude.
  • Do make eye contact. Know how much is appropriate based on what local culture dictates.
  • Do ensure nonverbal cues (posture, hand gestures, facial expressions) convey that you’re interested in the other person.
  • Don’t assume that everyone understands and processes information in the same way you do.
  • Assume the other person is competent, and even if proven otherwise, treat them kindly.

Just doing a few of these will help to avoid problems or confusion when it comes to communication. And when it comes to critical items like overall corporate communications, a little help can go a long way.

What other ways do you see people messing up verbal/nonverbal cues? What advice do you have?

The Double Down Effect

I’ve been thinking about what I like to call the “double down effect.” It’s also known as push back, resistance to change, and a host of other terms used to describe what happens when you try to push people in a direction they don’t want to go. Instead of merely rejecting the information, they “double down” on their efforts to continue unchanged, even if it is harmful in the long run.

resistance to changeOne recent example was in the area of wellness. A company started pushing its employees to start eating right and exercising, but it was heavy-handed and not at all tailored to individual needs. Employees quickly came to resent the latest management fad/program, and they began to make a game out of eating fast food, avoiding the “recommended physical activities” under the wellness plan, etc.

What was meant to help actually ended up hurting the workforce, because any further attempts to implement a wellness program would have to not only overcome the initial hurdles, but the lingering affects of this clumsy attempt at changing a deeply-ingrained set of behaviors.

So, now what?

If you’re still with me on the concept, you’re probably wondering how to avoid getting this backlash any time a change is recommended. There’s no blanket answer, but if we’re following the example above, here are a few ideas to consider when you begin the process of planning and communicating a change to the workforce.

  • Use your key influencers. Get the informal leaders on board early, then leverage their connections to grow the movement organically. 
  • Develop a communications strategy. Throwing out an email or a flyer with no advance warning is the best way to immediately invite resistance. Instead, offer previews of what’s coming. Talk about the benefits. It’s a sales process, to sell it!
  • Offer multiple messages for different groups of people. Some employees prefer to hear news about changes from their manager. Others like to get bits and pieces and develop their own opinions. Still others prefer to discuss the ideas in groups. Provide multiple avenues for gathering information (and for goodness sake, please don’t make HR the gatekeeper for all the data!).

You’re still going to get some resistance to the change process, no matter what the change might be. If you’re looking for some additional wisdom on the topic, I’d recommend this book on change leadership that I reviewed earlier this year. Good stuff in there on this specific topic.

How do you avoid the “double down effect” with your own staff? I’d love to hear some additional tips and tricks from the field. 


Happy Workers: Perception, Psychology, and Reality

I know, many of you are thinking, “Happy workers? I just want them to come to work and be productive!” Don’t worry, I think today’s discussion will be helpful for you as well.

happy workersI spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine how to make our people happier. Sometimes that comes in the form of removing obstacles, but it can also come in the form of ensuring that they know what they’re getting. Equity theory is a tool that plays into that. For instance, helping to educate employees on how your benefits or work environment transcend the market average can help them to feel better/happier, despite there being no real change made. A large part of this is simply how well you communicate things.

To keep the conversation targeted today, we’re going to look exclusively at the benefits realm. Even if that’s not your idea of fun, stick with me and we’ll see if we can learn something new.

What the data says

I received a news piece recently that focused on several topics surrounding employee satisfaction and happy workers, but one in particular caught my eye.

1 in 3 (31%) employees report that they do not believe their benefits are better than those offered at competitor companies


And as far as which benefits are most important to the employees surveyed, here’s the list:

  • 76% – medical plan/coverage
  • 72% – holidays/vacation/sick time
  • 62% – 401K/retirement/pension
  • 60% – dental plan/coverage
  • 27% – employee development/training
  • 26% – wellness programs e.g., health screening programs, exercise/physical fitness programs, or health insurance education
  • 26% – employee discounts e.g., commuter subsidies, gym membership discount, discounts on company products/services
  • 23% – tuition reimbursement
  • 21% – office perks e.g., free food and drink, casual dress, or a pet friendly office

Your job

In case you didn’t realize it already, your employer thinks it’s your job to 1) help people understand their benefits and 2) provide benefits that your employees care about. If you don’t know what your people want, definitely take some time to learn more about that.

That 31% of people who think benefits are better at other companies? That’s your target audience for these kinds of communications. How you communicate your response is key, because you want to avoid being condescending, but you also want to give solid information that allows them to judge the situation with all the facts at hand.

My experiences

This year I have a goal (not just a “that would be nice if…” but an actual performance-related metric!) relating to employee benefits. It’s my objective to do a better job of communicating our offerings, sharing some of the market averages, and educating our employees on how to make use of what we do provide.

  • Lifetime financial planning articles and lunch-and-learns
  • What disability coverage is, how it’s used, and how it impacts their family
  • What are the key impacts of the PPACA for individuals and how to prepare
  • How and why to use the employee assistance program

These are a few ideas, but you can see how they’re oriented: education. The better I can teach our people, the better equipped they will be to make sound decisions regarding the benefits we offer. It’s not cash wrapped in bacon, but it will do in a pinch.

Have you ever stopped to find out how your people feel about the benefits they receive? Do you offer any different/unusual benefits to your employees that might differentiate you from other employers?

Phrasing Matters-Inspiration versus Fear

Just a quick post today. I’m reading a book and I ran across a section where the author is discussing the differences between two phrases that seem pretty similar but have very different meanings. 

  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What gets you up in the morning?

The idea is that focusing on what keeps you awake at night might seem innocuous, but it focuses on fears. What are you afraid of? What’s scaring you? The question assumes that the recipient has worries and fears that they want to share.

On the other hand, focusing on what gets you up in the morning has a very different connotation. It’s targeting the inspirational, motivational pieces of what you are doing.

The next time you start to ask someone what is keeping them awake at night, flip the mental switch and ask about what gets them up in the morning. I guarantee the discussion will be more positive, and the person on the other end of the question will enjoy the experience more as well.

Subtle change, major difference. Phrasing matters.

While we’re on the topic, what gets you up in the morning? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

3 “D’s” for Prioritizing Tasks at Work

Prioritizing tasks at work is something that I constantly struggle with, especially when everything is a fire that needs putting out. These days I’m spending about 55 hours a week recruiting like crazy, and when you’re a one-man HR team, there are some things that just have to be left undone. The hard part?

Deciding what things can wait.

prioritizing tasks at workIt’s a task that requires skill, experience, and input from others. This week I have struggled with prioritizing tasks at work. I’ve worked to get my tasks separated into the three “D’s” so I can make sense of everything.

Prepare for prioritizing tasks at work

Grab a blank sheet of paper and draw two lines so you end up with three columns. At the top of the first write “Delay,” on the second write “Delegate,” and on the third write “Do.”

If you have forgotten how to use a pen and paper, you’re welcome to use a spreadsheet or word doc. Whatever works best for you. Once you have the foundation, let’s jump into what each is for.

Three keys to prioritizing tasks at work

  1. Delay-Sometimes we just have to decide not to do anything for now. I am bad about thinking I can get it all done, and it’s hard to be honest with yourself and just say, “X is the priority. Y will not get done until tomorrow/next week/whenever.” Pick the things that are important but  not urgent. We need these things to get done, but it won’t happen today. Some examples for me are cleaning out the inbox, filing, and auditing.
  2. Delegate-Some things can be delegated. If they are important enough that you can’t delay them, but you still don’t have the bandwidth to make them happen, then consider delegating. Target the person who has the skills and time to make it happen, tell them your expectations for a finished product, and let them work. This is not the time to micromanage the process (if you’re going to do that, why delegate in the first place?). Some examples for me include generating press releases, filing, and invoice reconciliation.
  3. Do-After streamlining the list somewhat, you should be left with the critical, must-do items. I have to stress the fact that this can’t be a list with 20 items on it. If so, there was no point to the first steps in this exercise. This needs to be the top 2-3 big tasks that you must do today. You can redo your list tomorrow if need be, and by then maybe some of the priorities will have shifted so you have a clearer overall picture. Then, when you have the key tasks ready, you do what you have been putting off: get to work!

One more tip

I think it’s very important when prioritizing tasks at work to send that list to your manager or post it somewhere that they have access to it. Your manager has a job, too. They can’t keep up with your laundry list of to-do items as well. This can be a great tool for showing them what your focus is, what you’ve decided to hold off on, etc.

It’s not perfect, but when you are short on time and have a long to-do list, this is one method I’ve found to help reduce stress, get a grip on the tasks at hand, and get everyone on the same page.

What do you do when there is more work than time in the day? How do you stay motivated when your list of tasks never seems to get shorter?

Additional resources for prioritizing tasks at work

Offer Solutions, Not Comments

I don’t have cable. My life is a wee bit busy and I know that access and availability would mean more wasted time in front of the TV. But I will confess that I really like watching Justified and one other show online. The other night I was watching Justified and one line stuck in my head. The mob is trying to find out where their target is located, and the tension is heating up. Here’s a quick replay of the exchange as I remember it:

Mob Guy: We have to find him before someone else does. We want this guy bad.

Local Guy: He is not at the location I thought he was.

Mob Guy: That’s a comment, not a solution.

solutions light bulbI loved that response, and I’ve kept it with me for the past few days as a reminder to keep my mouth shut if I don’t have something valuable to contribute to the discussion. I’ve held my tongue one or two times more than I usually would, so I’m going to count it as a success in that regard!

As long as we’re searching for answers, I’d like to point you to two other resources for keeping the focus on solutions.

Stop offering problems

It’s time to be proactive. Start looking for ways you can cut costs, streamline your functions, save time for managers, etc. Look for some solutions to age-old problems, not just new ones. Not sure where to start? Ask some of your managers what their biggest pain points are with regard to the HR or recruiting processes. Ask your senior leaders what their biggest concerns are at a corporate level. Then take that information and use it.

Want to know the fastest, easiest way to prove the value of the HR department? Solve a problem that plagues the management team. Yes, it seems simple, but it is often overlooked because HR tends to exist in its own little “bubble” and never takes the time to actually find out what the business needs are from the HR function.

Then take the time to communicate what you’ve found in the way of solutions to current problems. (Source)

Talk about how we can, not why we can’t

I absolutely love that quote (and the idea behind it). Instead of focusing on excuses or reasons you can’t make something happen, keep searching for ways to do it. Look for opportunities, not limitations. There are already enough people in the world who are ready and willing to tell you how something can’t be accomplished. Let’s work on cultivating more people that look for ways you can be successful. (Source)

Next time you have a meeting with a person or group of people, take a minute to think before you speak. Are you merely offering meaningless comments, or are you offering actual solutions to the problems at hand? Will your comments make the situation better, improve the outcome, or make someone’s life better, or is it all just talk?

Company Merger Process (Dealing with Employees You Didn’t Hire)

It is difficult to describe the company merger process with regard to the effects on employees, but one that I want to touch on today is one that has been a consistent focus area for us in recent years. As a government contractor, if we win a contract, we take over all employees currently working on the contract and they join our workforce.

The issue comes when we start running into employee relations issues with the existing workforce. In other words, we wouldn’t have hired these people outright, but we had to as part of the contract turnover.

Company Merger ProcessDon’t get me wrong, we also earned ourselves some amazing new staff members who are professional to the core. We’re proud to have them aboard and wouldn’t trade them away.

But as for some of the others, we had to live with them. We had to put up with them. And it was tough. 

I’ve talked before about our tough standards of hiring for culture fit. We take this stuff seriously. So what do we do when we have to deal with employees we didn’t hire? How do the parts play out in this scenario? Read on for how I’ve seen the various pieces fall into place over time. It’s an interesting phenomenon and I’d love to hear some ideas from people on how they might have successfully integrated multiple workforce groups.

How do the new employees react in the company merger process?

Well, if time is any indication, they realize pretty quickly that they don’t fit into the new culture. They eventually become uncomfortable with the working arrangement and often resign. We use retention as a key metric for our HR operations, but in instances like those I am perfectly happy to let the person go. Yes, it’s a hassle, but we get to start the recruiting process to find a new person that fits our cultural norms and agrees with our core values and customer-focused mission.

For the ones who are a closer fit to our corporate culture, it’s a really fun time to watch the full transition. Some of the most meaningful compliments I’ve received as an HR professional came from this group of employees, including:

  • Wow, our last HR rep wouldn’t have even called me back about this issue.
  • Our last HR person didn’t do anything about this problem, but I know you can help.
  • It’s so great to be at a company that cares about its people.
  • You guys make it fun working here. I love coming to work every morning.

In those moments, I realize that it’s worth all the trouble in the world to make an impact for those select few who do stick with us for the long haul.

What about the originals (employed before the company merger process)?

This is the tough part. Hiring with a strict standard means that the majority of our staff are firmly committed to the success of the organization. Then virtually overnight we gather up a number of people in the company merger process who are more interested in looking for ways to avoid working than they are in actually serving our customers well. It’s a complete 180-degree shift, and for many current employees, it’s very difficult to handle.

We work hard to keep pouring the positivity and encouragement into the staff to keep them from losing focus. The majority of the time these contract changes are geography-based, so we don’t normally have “new” employees working physically close to “old” employees. That definitely helps to lessen the effects of bringing on the new people, though it could also theoretically flow the other way and allow our “old timers” to help influence the new people and teach them what matters.

We also learned the hard way that there’s a shortcut to this cultural indoctrination process.

The company merger process secret weapon

We’ve learned by trial and error that a key to success is embedding a solid leader in a management position with the new staff. That person needs to “bleed green,” as we often say. That doesn’t mean they give up their life for Pinnacle or that they are a brown-nosing loser. It just means they understand our mission and our customer very well and can help coach the other managers and staff on how we do things.

I’ve heard that USAA does something similar. Whenever they open a new office in the field, they don’t hire a brand new person to run the office. They send someone trained in the company’s history, values, and culture out to start the office. Then they grow it organically from there. It’s a brilliant concept, and I think one that is worth exploring if you do much of this type of growth. I talk more about this concept of culture change through mergers and acquisitions in the Rock Your Culture guide, if you’re interested in delving deeper.

Anyone else out there have a company merger process story where you picked up employees that you wouldn’t have hired in the first place? How did you handle the situation?