Impact Opportunity had the chance to speak with Sarah Chostner, Founder of Aprium Advisors, which supports HR and talent leaders to realize their fullest potential and help their organizations thrive. Sarah shared her thoughts on best practices regarding Human Resources communications and offered several examples of effective ways to share critical information with employees.
Sarah Chostner: There are three rules of thumb when considering internal communications as HR. The first two rules point to communicating important information multiple times and in various ways. Rule number one is people are busy, and they're busy doing the jobs that you hired them to do, so they may miss your communication. And two, people learn in different ways. Some people learn by reading, some through listening, some are visual learners, and some learn through dialogue. If you are trying to share something important with people about their employment, plan to say it multiple times and in numerous ways; for example, email, a slide presentation, a video recording of a voiceover over those slides, office hours, and/or an organization-wide meeting.
The third rule is considering where the communication should come from—from you as HR or from people's managers. To figure out which of those messengers is the right one, think about the topic, the level of sensitivity of the information and perhaps how scary it is, and the extent to which people need to understand all the details.
Here are a few examples to illustrate how you might communicate important information.
Sharing an employee handbook. Most employee handbooks are just sent to people, perhaps on their first day, with an expectation that employees will read and absorb this 40-page document. Then they have to sign a form indicating that they’ve read it and will abide by it. But of course, most people don’t actually read it… again because they’re busy doing their jobs. And that’s a pity because there’s good information in employee handbooks about the policies that impact people’s day-to-day employment and how the organization supports them aligned with their values.
I advise my clients to develop a high-level presentation they can share with the organization while they roll out the handbook, focusing on the things people need to know upfront, such as, “When and how am I going to get paid? What's the vacation policy? How much sick time do I have? And when can I take that?" For the information they only need to know in rare circumstances (we hope) - for example, the whistleblower policy - the presentation should indicate where to find that information and who to reach out to with questions. This is where a combination of a presentation, with a recorded voiceover, and a company-wide meeting or a series of office hours, are the right way to communicate this message, as opposed to one email that says, "Here's our employee handbook. Please read it."
Benefit changes or open enrollment. Benefits information lends itself to a summary email with the key information (e.g., when people need to enroll), and then a series of follow-on experiences or materials for all of the additional information that each individual needs to know and process in their own way (e.g., "What are the specific benefits being offered? How does this work for my family? How much does it cost?"). That information lends itself better to a brochure, a presentation, and office hours. This information should come from HR, not managers, because it is technical, and people may have confidential, personal questions that they may not be comfortable asking their managers.
Compensation redesign. People have a lot of feelings about compensation, as it's one of the most important parts of their employment. My recommendation is that HR should communicate about the process rather than how much each individual is making. (I’ll share more about that later when we talk about transparency.) Host office hours for people to give input and voice their needs. Then, once you land on a new compensation system, the actual impact on the individual employee and their salary should come from their manager, one on one. That is an opportunity for managers to say, "I value you as an employee, and the organization values you. Here's how we'd like to show you that through your compensation." HR’s role is then to provide talking points and training to managers on that one-on-one conversation.
A new HR Information System (HRIS). An HRIS is the technical tool that people log into to find their pay stubs, check their vacation balances, and submit for vacation or sick leave. I recommend creating videos that people can access when they are actually trying to take the action because they won’t absorb it when it doesn’t feel relevant. So, videos that employees can access later and opt-in training sessions are the best communication tool in this case.
Performance reviews. This is where a mix of HR and manager communication is the right thing. HR needs to be involved so people know this is a standard process, there is calibration, and this is not going to be subjective based on just my manager's perception of me. But it's also essential for managers to be involved in the communication because they must demonstrate buy-in. If people can tell their manager isn't bought into the process, the employees will not be bought in either. HR should set the stage organization-wide via email, and then managers should handle it 1:1 or with their teams from there.
It's impossible to list all the situations in which HR should communicate with staff, especially as organizational cultures vary. However, I can share a framework or a series of questions leaders should ask themselves. First, “Is this information directly relevant to the most important aspects of our people’s employment?” If the answer is yes, then HR needs to be communicating about it. I would put at least four things in that category: compensation, benefits, performance reviews, and promotions. HR should be communicating about each of those on at least an annual basis.
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Second, “Is this a significant change likely to cause excitement, anxiety, or some mix?” If so, a combination of Leadership and HR should communicate proactively and regularly about it. I'll give examples of two extremes. On the positive side is a new strategic plan. If the organization has a new strategic plan, new goals, new direction, revamped direction, or new energy around that direction, you should be communicating about that with employees. On the flip side, layoffs are happening a lot right now. This, of course, creates considerable anxiety for people, and you have to communicate about it and be transparent. For both of these extremes, and the latter especially, the communication must come in multiple forms (e.g., first an all-staff meeting, then a follow-up email, then optional office hours to ask questions) since people absorb information in different ways, and anxiety can impede our ability to listen deeply.
First, ask yourself, “Will greater transparency benefit the organization?” And there are a lot of reasons it could. It could build trust, provide more opportunities for valuable input from your employees, or increase buy-in and aligned action, to name just a few. Then, think about what exactly you can and should be transparent about. Compensation is a good example here.
Is it appropriate to be transparent about every individual’s salary? Probably not. So what can you be transparent about to build trust around compensation? Lots!
You can be transparent about:
The process you're going to use. "Here are all the steps we're going to take."
How people will have a say. "We’d like your perspective through this survey. You can come to these listening circles or focus groups or office hours and give input."
What they'll have a say in. For example, are they going to have a say in compensation levels, or will they have a say in what gets compensated, such as extra pay for educational degrees or additional work or speaking multiple languages?
Who is making the decision. For example, the Senior Leadership Team is deciding based on a recommendation from the Chief People Officer.
When the decision will be made. "We will have decided by this date, and you will know your specific salary on this date."
The values and criteria that will be used. "We're going to use our organizational values to guide this process, particularly our values around equity and team." Or "we will analyze all options based on the following five criteria."
Financial constraints. I think that's where organizations are often not transparent, and only leaders know that information. Leaders know, "Our budget is this much. This percentage of the budget is fixed because it's our building, and we can't change our rent. And so, this is how much we have to increase salaries, and if we increase it by X percent, we will have to cut somewhere else."
You can share all that information with people so that they understand the full picture. When people ask for more transparency, they're probably saying that the things that impact their employment feel like a black box to them, and they don't know how decisions are made and when they can give input. Those things are either the “hygiene” things like compensation and benefits or the work-specific things like the organization goals. So HR and Leadership can transparently communicate, "This is how the decision is made, this is why, these are the tradeoffs, and here's where you can give input." Even if folks aren’t totally happy with the outcome, a transparent process helps a lot.
The move towards having salary ranges in job descriptions is critical and fantastic. I'm a huge fan. Why waste anyone's time going through a process if the compensation won’t work for them? And let's not pretend that compensation is not an important part of employment. People need to feed their families, pay rent, go to the doctor, etc. Of course, compensation matters. Not posting a salary range just opens the door to negotiation, which is well-documented to perpetuate racial and gender pay inequities. My favorite article on this topic is: When you don’t disclose the salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings.
It's pretty well known that when you hire externally, you pay new hires more than people who have been internal to the organization for a while. That happens because the market adjusts externally faster than it does internally. This is part of why I recommend doing a compensation review at least every three years. Part of that review should examine, "Are the external rates at which we need to bring in people for these roles comparable to what we’re paying people currently in those roles internally?" And if not, the organization needs to “level them up.” That's a big part of the compensation review, leading to, for example, a salary band for directors. That range then goes on the job descriptions, and everyone internally should be at least in that range or above. That creates some level of transparency internally without saying Person A is making exactly this amount. Instead, we know Person A is a director doing this level of work with the associated competencies, so this is their salary band.
Hands down, the number one group is managers. Ultimately, many people stay or leave organizations based on their manager. Oftentimes, people move into a manager role because they're good at doing the work, which is a different skill set than managing others to do the work. People need real training and support in day-to-day management, performance reviews, salary conversations, and difficult conversations about growth areas. HR teams should consider the learning arc for managers to help them grow.
In addition to employee surveys, I think exit interviews are key. You have to learn why people are leaving and what you could have done to keep them. I'm assuming that most of the time, organizations want to keep people and are sad when they lose them. At the same time, you need to consider the possibility that people won't feel safe or comfortable doing an exit interview. So, I would also recommend offering an anonymous survey as an option. Give people a choice to do either or both on the way out and then create a regular practice of looking at that data, analyzing it, and bringing it to the senior leadership team to say, “What are we going to do about this?”
There are a couple of scenarios when an organization might need additional HR support. One is an organization that's about to grow: both five employees and 50 employees are common tipping points when organizations should consider institutionalizing some of these HR practices because it's best for employees and because many compliance laws come into play at those points.
Another time is when there's a vacancy in the HR team or you have HR leaders who are newer to the field. HR is an interesting blend of relationship-driven work, especially on the talent side of things, and compliance and legal-related skills. Only some people possess both of these skill sets. For example, a staff member who has been in the organization for a long time may be a huge asset to move into HR because they have strong relationships within the organization. But if they are new to the technical and legal pieces, they might need some support through coaching or on-call advice. Certain HR topics such as leaves, discipline conversations, and investigations ideally occur infrequently, but you must do them correctly when they occur.
The third category is if your organization is at an inflection point regarding talent and culture, and you cannot afford to hire a full-time C-level position, but you need that level of strategic leadership around talent and culture. That's the point where you could seek outside HR consulting to support the strategic needs you have.
It is my philosophy that if we expect people to show up as their best selves in service of outcomes (for students, communities, etc.), then they need to be seen for their assets, respected, valued, developed, and feel a sense of belonging. The HR function plays a critical role in bringing that to life, both technically and relationally, in all the ways we have discussed above. While our mission-driven work always has to be with beneficiaries' outcomes in mind, doing right by staff is one critical way to do right by those we serve.
Impact Opportunity would like to thank Sarah Chostner for sharing her time and sights! Sarah has been both a strategy consultant and an organizational leader and practitioner. She provides highly personal, engaged support that draws on many years of experience delivering transformative results. As someone with team management, consulting, complex project leadership, and C-suite executive experience, she brings a unique blend of high-level strategic thinking and in-the-weeds tactical knowledge and know-how. Learn more how Sarah can support your organization’s HR needs!