Communication, Communication, Communication!

communicationIn real estate, they say the three most important things are “location, location, location.” Well, when it comes to staff relations, I think the three most important things are “communication, communication, communication!”

Throughout this book, I’ve driven home the importance of consistency in nearly every aspect of HR. Nowhere is consistency more important than in this area of employee satisfaction. Back in the first chapter, I discussed how inconsistency can cause employees to feel they are being taken advantage of or treated unfairly. One of the best ways to proactively head off disillusionment in this area is with effective communication. Communication has the potential to literally make or break your employment relationship.

When an employee becomes dissatisfied, it is usually because a fundamental expectation is not being met, but sometimes the disconnect stems more from poor communication than from the actual circumstances themselves. Misunderstandings will inevitably occur, but how you respond to those misunderstandings can make all the difference. Approaching these issues with humility and honesty plays a critical role in keeping the lines of communication open.

Not too long ago, I was involved in a situation where a breakdown in communication caused a huge rift and significant dissatisfaction among staff. Two different groups from the same organization were sharing office space, but their needs for the space were dramatically different. Both groups reported to a different manager within the organization, and since both of the managers had their own significantly different ideas about the priority for the space, each group had expectations in alignment with what their manager had shared with them. Under the circumstances, the resulting conflict was not surprising.

By the time the situation was brought to my attention, claims of discrimination and harassment were being thrown around liberally. Since the staff in the group that had reportedly been claiming discrimination were primarily members of a minority group, it was no small matter. There was also talk of some staff being ready to leave because they couldn’t continue to work in such a negative environment. To complicate matters even further, the executive who had originally approved renting the space was no longer with the organization. This opened the door to both sides claiming they had the correct understanding of the intended use of the space.

The office in question was over fifty miles away from the main office, which only added to the layers of confusion. When I learned of the situation, I was shocked to discover no one had actually gone out to the office and gotten everyone together at the same time to talk it through. A zillion and one side meetings had been held to “investigate” the situation, but they had served only to waste time, muddy the water, and, in general, make things a whole lot worse. Everyone was being told by someone else what “the other side” was saying instead of hearing it firsthand together. While there are some situations where individual meetings are more appropriate, in a situation where there is clearly a lot of misunderstanding and opposing expectations within a group, you will never bring about resolution without meeting to find a place of mutual understanding. Talking to people, rather than talking about them and what you think they are saying, is usually a much more effective means of communication!

After getting a little background on the situation and talking briefly to the leaders involved (including the executive who was no longer with the organization), we set up a mandatory meeting for all concerned. The first thing we did in the meeting was apologize and acknowledge that communication had broken down with leadership and that the staff should never have been put in the situation they were in. We talked about ground rules for the meeting and that our goal wasn’t to determine who was “right” but rather to find a way to move forward that everyone could live with.

The meeting was a little tense at times. A little. But the bottom line of the story is after about an hour and a half of sometimes difficult but open and honest dialogue, we were able to resolve a situation that had been brewing and wreaking havoc for months. We immediately put a temporary solution in place that everyone bought into, while we agreed to look for an even better longer term solution. Most importantly, we didn’t lose any of the staff and they were able to work much more cooperatively together from that point forward. It wasn’t perfect and not everyone was 100% happy, but it did get us back on the right track.

Here’s the main point: The staff wanted the situation to work. They usually do. We (the organization’s leadership) needed to own our part of the fiasco—which was exceptionally poor communication and a lack of coordinated planning between the two groups from the beginning—and set a new baseline for moving forward. Once the staff felt “heard” and saw the sincerity on the part of leadership to commit to a workable solution, it was relatively easy to arrive at a solution from there.

How you communicate has the potential to aid, or hinder, your staff’s engagement and fulfillment. I’ve seen more employment relationships go south due to poor communication than almost any other thing. Poor communication directly affects expectations, and unmet expectations can lead to frustration and burnout. The sad thing about a lapse in the area of communication is that most of the time, it is absolutely preventable.

Although it is preventable, it’s not always easy. God has wired us with different personalities and a wide variety of past experiences. What we “hear” goes through our own unique filters, which makes communication with other imperfect humans a wonderfully tricky thing. Don’t assume that because you know what you mean, everyone else does too. We know our intentions, but everyone else knows what they actually hear, see, and experience. Do a little self-assessment in this area and ask others about your communication style. If you’re serious about valuing and honoring your staff, you need to know what they are really hearing when you communicate with them.

Effective communication is especially critical in times of organizational change. If your skill set doesn’t include being able to anticipate how staff might react to certain types of changes or information, seek the counsel of others who are more naturally attuned in this area (“feelers” are much more dialed in to these types of things than “thinkers”). With proactive, transparent, and compassionate  communication, I’ve seen employees willingly get on board with incredibly difficult adjustments, including cuts in benefits, changes in pay or position, etc. On the other hand, with poor communication, I’ve seen employees nearly riot over small and seemingly insignificant changes—sometimes even when the changes are to their benefit!

You can’t afford to take this subject lightly. It is one of the key issues that will determine the overall quality of your staff’s experience and significantly affects retention. And, whether you have come to realize it or not, employee satisfaction will directly affect the fruitfulness of your ministry.

This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8: “Employee Experience and Retention” from my book HR Matters.  Click HERE to get your copy today!

Excellence, Not Perfection

Here is another brief excerpt from the first chapter of HR Matters that continues on with the theme of what it means to be “above reproach” as an employer:

Publication3To meet any goal, the goal itself needs to be clearly understood and defined. In light of this, what do we really mean when we use the expression “above reproach”? By definition, being above reproach means to be perfect and blameless. No one other that Jesus ever lived a life that was perfect and blameless, so certainly that can’t be the expectation for either our employees or ourselves! Instead, when considering 1 Timothy 3:1-13, I think what we are trying to say is that the expectation is for excellence of character—in both word and deed.

With this definition in mind, what does it mean to commit to excellence as an employer? As noted earlier, at a minimum, it must include a commitment to discovering and complying with the regulations and laws relevant to your organization (see Romans 13:1-7 for one example of our biblical mandate in this regard), but that is only the beginning. The dictionary defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”  Considering this definition, meeting the letter of the law does not even begin to demonstrate excellence since you are merely doing what is fundamentally required. Instead, for the Christian employer, I believe excellence is an inside job that begins when the leadership of an organization consciously regards all of its practices—not just the ones that are directly specific to your mission or finances—as being “unto the Lord.”

This would include:

  • Your hiring decisions
  • Your compensation practices
  • Your policies and procedures
  • The way you treat your staff
  • The way you practice what you preach
  • The openness and honesty of your communication
  • The way you consistently apply standards

Jesus doesn’t expect perfection from us as His followers, and He doesn’t expect it from us as employers. He understands our fallibility and weaknesses. He knows we’re not capable of perfection. But He does desire our best because that is what excellence looks like.

I believe that’s what your staff is looking for as well. They don’t expect perfection, but they do want to see a genuine effort demonstrated toward excellence. For most employees, this translates as consistency between your organization’s stated values and your actions—especially actions that affect their employment.

Again, no one does this perfectly. Most employees are capable of extending tons of grace if you display ownership, honesty, and humility when mistakes and inconsistencies inevitably occur. On the flip side, if you turn a blind eye toward the fact that inconsistencies are occurring (and believe me, they occur everywhere), your employees are not likely to be so gracious on an ongoing basis. While they may choose to continue forgiving even if things are never acknowledged or recognized, most won’t continue to subject themselves to an unhealthy environment indefinitely (nor should they!). When there is an ongoing failure to recognize and acknowledge where improvement is needed, it negatively impacts your staff and diminishes the overall witness and effectiveness of your organization. Even worse, it can keep your organization from fulfilling its highest potential.

The simple truth is that being above reproach as an employer—or even more accurately, demonstrating excellence—is an intentional choice. You will not wander into it by chance. You will never “find the time” to figure it out. You need to make the time and commit to investing in the process. It is not likely to happen unless you are willing to see and take ownership for the mixed messages some of your current practices may be sending to your staff and those in your sphere of influence. I believe this anonymous quote sums it up well:

Excellence is never accidental; it is the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skillful execution, and the wisdom to see obstacles as opportunities.

There are easier paths, but if you are committed to excellence before God in all areas—including your employment practices—then allow the challenges to become opportunities that compel you to press on for His highest. Press on, and keep pressing on, until you can say in your heart that you know that you know—you are above reproach as an employer!


The whole first chapter of HR Matters is available to read online using the free “previewer” on Amazon. You can also purchase the whole book (either paperback or kindle) here.

Starting out Right

Publication3Few things are bound to leave as lasting an impression on a new employee as their first day. The first day sets the tone for their overall experience as your employee. If things are chaotic and nothing is prepared for them, it is likely to send a message from the start that they are not valued or important to the organization.

Fortunately, the reverse is also true. If you do put a little time and energy into making your staff’s first day a good one, it is likely to have long-term dividends.

From chapter 8 of HR Matters (“Employee Experience and Retention”), here are some very simple things you can do to help your staff start out on the right foot:

  1. Preparation. Make sure that the employee’s email is set up, that they have adequate work space, and that any necessary equipment is available (a computer set up with necessary programs, passwords, name badge, keys, etc.).
  2. Introduction. Have someone available to introduce them to the rest of staff and show them around. If you don’t have a formal orientation process, at a minimum, make sure they know where everything is located and how to operate basic office equipment, etc. You’d be surprised how often this is overlooked!
  3. Belonging. Any little trinkets (t-shirt, coffee mug, etc.) with the organization’s logo can go a long way in making a new person feel like they’re part of the team. This can be a relatively small investment with a big return (employees especially seem to like t-shirts).
  4. Scheduling. Discuss their first week’s schedule and let them know what the training process will involve.
  5. Communication. Go over your employee handbook, benefits (if applicable), and the organization’s most significant policies (if you don’t have a more formal orientation where these things are already discussed). Make sure they know how and when to turn in their timecard (if required), the timing of paydays, and other pertinent information.

In general, make them feel welcome. This is their first taste of what it will be like to work for your organization. If things go haywire and you’re not ready for them when they start, can this be overcome? Of course. However, it is a lot nicer when you start out on the right foot, so try to make their first day a good one!

One final thought: don’t forget your volunteers! Since most nonprofits and churches utilize a high number of volunteers—some of them in positions of significant responsibility—many of these things can, and should, also be applied to volunteers. If your volunteers are the lifeblood of your organization, honor them and appreciate them! Put some effort into assuring the right people are in the right spots. When they start in a new role, make sure things are organized and ready for them; make them feel welcome. It rarely hurts—and often helps tremendously—to go the extra mile. Take steps to ensure both staff and volunteers feel welcomed and valued from their first day forward.