Reigniting Trust

Talking to Employees

A public relations professor looks at internal communication and how to increase employee trust  

 Public relations is most often thought of as external communications, how companies talk to the outside world. But internal communication is equally important, especially at a time when schools and offices are closed, people are working remotely and uncertainty is high.

Rita Men
Rita Men

So says Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Public Relations at the University of Florida who has spent years studying how companies communicate with their employees.

Men found that how a company communicates internally has a major impact on how employees view the organization and the people in leadership positions. This is especially important during the pandemic, when companies and employees are navigating major changes.

“When employees experience a higher level of psychological well-being, which can be fostered via transparent and supportive communication, they tend to trust the organization more,” she said. “Basically, that means that internal communication can help build trust.”

‘Symmetrical Communication’

Men, who has authored more than 60 articles and two books, conducted a series of studies under the banner of the university’s Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology.

The studies evaluated corporate communications using employee surveys. Men breaks that communication into three categories: communiques from the CEO or top leadership; supervisory communication; and peer-to-peer interaction among employees.

All three can impact employee well-being, but Men’s studies show that the first two, the communications that come from the company itself, have the most impact. Moreover, companies that practice what is known as “symmetrical communication” often have the best outcomes.

“Symmetrical communication is the idea that the company is not trying to manipulate employees and the public,” Men said. “It is trying to balance the interests of the organization and the employees. The company is trying to listen to them and genuinely hear their voice and their needs, and to follow up with actions to address their concerns.”

As she put it, “It’s a communication mindset.”

Authenticity and Empathy

Among all the factors that affect employee trust, communication from the CEO often has an important impact. Chief executives at Amazon, Microsoft,  Marriott, Starbucks and many other well-known companies took the time to directly address their employees when the pandemic struck. How they communicate at times like this matters a great deal.

Men said that transparency and authenticity are both vital factors when it comes to increasing trust. “Being authentic means you are consistent with your culture and your values,” she said. “You are not saying one thing and doing another.”

Authenticity is also about being genuine, Men said. “People don’t expect them to be superheroes,” she said. “They needed to be willing to show some vulnerability, to be real, to be genuine, to be personable. When you are experiencing emotions at those extreme circumstances, it’s okay to show it. That’s what everyone else is experiencing.”

Empathy is another important characteristic, according to Men. “It’s about perspective-taking, being willing to stand in the shoes of employees. In these challenging times, leaders need to be there, listen, and be willing to show care and support.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, for example, sent an email to company employees March 21 that expressed some of these characteristics.

“We are in uncharted territory,” he wrote. “Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels. Like many of you, there have been times over the past weeks where it has felt overwhelming and all-encompassing for me. I worry about the health and safety of my family, my co-workers, and friends. My wife and I worry for her aging parents, who are far away from us in India. I see the struggle in our local community, and around the world, the empty streets and restaurants, and I wonder when our social fabric will be restored.”

Gratitude and Optimism

Men said that gratitude is also important, especially during the pandemic. “Many essential workers are really risking their safety to work for the company,” she said. “It’s really important for the company, for the leaders, to recognize that and to say it. If you don’t say you appreciate it, people won’t know. And, of course, actions speak louder than words.”

She points to The Kroger Company, a massive grocer and retailer with more than 2,700 stores, as an example. Kroger offered “hero pay” of an extra $2 an hour, plus a “thank you bonus,” to its essential workers during the pandemic.

Men also said that the best CEO’s are able to communicate a sense of optimism, even in tough times. Again, Nadella’s letter in March is a good example.

“For me, the best way I’ve found to get past this anxiety is to focus on what I can do each day to make a small difference,” he wrote. “Each of us, wherever we are, has the opportunity to do the same—take an action driven by hope, a small step that makes things a bit better. And if everyone does something that makes the world a bit better, our collective work will in fact make the world a lot better, for the people we love, for our communities, for society.”

As Men put it, “every crisis comes with an opportunity. I think [the pandemic] is an opportunity for companies and leaders to really pause, and to think about the ways they do things. It is like a reset button to reflect on the ways they do things, the ways they communicate and to communicate in a more effective manner.”