Take Your Employee Communications to the Next Level

Spring 2020
Patrick Johnston

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

As the communications specialist for Auburn University Human Resources, I share news with thousands of employees — from dairy attendants and deans to pharmacists and photographers. A couple of years ago, one of my jobs was to share information about a professional development program with non-exempt employees.

For several weeks, I emailed reminders to our target audience and submitted press releases through our university’s online newsletter. These efforts paid off in that each main session was packed!

Admittedly, I had a pep in my step with how the event turned out — until I learned about one of our custodians, a rock star employee loved by everybody in our department. Someone on the HR team asked if she planned to attend the program. Our custodian replied, “What program?”

Ouch.

Unfortunately, other employees likely did not attend the event because they did not know it was occurring. These hardworking individuals are vital to the success of our university, and they would have benefitted significantly from a day of professional development. However, their jobs don’t entail sitting in front of a computer checking email. Who knows what other communications they may have missed?

This was an “A-ha” moment for our department. Now, we are working even harder to reach all of our employees, and are more cognizant of what we say, how we say it and how we share it.

Regardless of your employee count, we can all benefit by taking a closer look at how well we communicate to our employees. Numerous surveys show that three out of every four employees believe that they are missing important news and information from their employer. The struggle is real.

Viewing HR communication through a more inclusive lens has led to new approaches in message content and delivery. Through trial and error, we are still learning what works for us. Here are a few areas where we have been successful.

Make Emails Shorter and Simpler

Two years ago, I asked one of our interns to audit several of our recent employee communications.

Here’s what she found:

  • Most of our communications were at a college reading level, including an open enrollment letter that was sent to all employees.
  • One communication was at a “17th grade” level.
  • At least half of our communications were more than 400 words — the length of an average newspaper article.

We needed to improve for several reasons. Not all of our employees read on a college level; some of our employees have visual, cognitive, motor and learning disabilities that make reading difficult; and who wants to read a lengthy and wordy article that could easily be trimmed in half without weakening the message? It was another “A-ha” moment for us.

Here are a few tips that I have since shared with our HR team when composing emails:

  • Write for your audience — We try to stay short and simple with employee communications. We often include a hyperlink to our website for those who want additional information.
  • Focus on the most important information — As a former newspaper editor, I still use the inverted pyramid for many communications. I place the most important information at the top of the communication. If a reader wants to quit after two or three paragraphs, at least they will have read the most important information.
  • Use technical or complex terms only when necessary — Such terms can suck the life out of a communication.
  • Use active verbs and personal pronouns — For example, “You can enroll in health insurance this month,” is more effective than “Open Enrollment will take place during the month of November.”
  • Explain unknown acronyms and abbreviations — Stay away from “acronym soup,” such as FLSA, ACA and others.
  • Use proper punctuation — Otherwise, you may hear from the English department.
  • Be strategic about what days communications are sent — I prefer morning communications and avoid Friday afternoon emails. However, it may be different for your employees. Find what works best for you.

My goal is to keep employee communications under 200 words, or to divide longer communications into sections. Regarding reading ease, I use tools such as the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests (available in Microsoft Word) and the Hemingway App. If an all-employee communication is not at a 12th grade level or lower, then it probably needs some work.

Regardless of your employee count, we can all benefit by taking a closer look at how well we communicate to our employees. Numerous surveys show that three out of every four employees believe that they are missing important news and information from their employer.

Get Social

While email is the official communication tool for our department, we use social media to supplement our efforts. It is one of our most important tools, and it’s a great way to reinforce a sense of community.

Each month, Auburn University honors three or four employees for their hard work and contributions to campus by sharing their photos on Facebook and Instagram. These posts are popular, and showcase the employees, their colleges or divisions and our department in a positive manner.

For Employee Recognition Week, we will share dozens of employee photos — from cookouts to conferences — and encourage employees to share their pictures with us. Last year we received dozens of photos that we shared on social media, on our website and in various publications.

We use our Facebook and Instagram pages to reach prospective employees as well. Many of our 3,100 Facebook followers chose to follow us after seeing posts about career opportunities at Auburn. We also publicize individual jobs. In February, we reached 12,000 people organically with a help wanted announcement for a golf cart operator. Needless to say, the position was filled quickly!

Adobe Spark is a great tool for creating social media posts that look professional, and it is quick and easy to use.

Post(er) Up

Our department just completed an Employee Experience Survey where we wanted accurate representation from all of campus. Of course, email was a primary tool. However, we also wanted to reach employees who are not in front of a computer all day. Thus, we worked with our HR liaisons to display posters in heavily trafficked areas, such as front door entrances, break rooms, even bathrooms. We also created graphics for departments with digital monitors.

Approximately 60 percent of employees participated in the survey. One of our target areas, Facilities, recorded one of the highest completion rates.

Two Communications Campaigns That Worked

HR at Auburn includes payroll, benefits, records, compensation, HR development, campus relations and employment. With so many units under one department, our projects vary day to day and year to year. Here are two examples of successful communications projects the department has completed over the past several years.

FLSA 

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor announced plans to increase the minimum salary threshold for FLSA exemption from $23,660 to $47,476. This impacted most colleges and universities, and Auburn was no exception. In fact, more than 700 of our employees were slated to be impacted, as their jobs would be re-designated from exempt to non-exempt.

The re-designation was not scheduled to occur until December 2016. However, in March we began to develop a communication campaign to reach all 700 employees and their supervisors.

While emails were important, we needed to utilize other tools to ensure that all of our employees and supervisors understood the FLSA change and its impact.

Meetings and Forums
First, we scheduled meetings with leadership from each college and division. In these meetings we explained what we knew about the FLSA change while answering their questions and seeking their feedback. We did not have all the answers but were committed to researching and answering their questions as soon as possible. One of our main goals was to be transparent throughout the process.

During the summer and early fall, we hosted eight forums for impacted employees. Approximately 200 employees attended. Our first task was to share information about the change, letting them know that this was a federal mandate. We talked about clocking in, business travel and examples of compensable time. We then listened to their questions and concerns.

While some employees were pleased with the changes, many were not. However, most appreciated our transparency and willingness to assist them with the transition.

FLSA Website
We also developed a microsite where the changes were listed, including separate pages on payroll scheduling, business travel, common questions from the forums and even FLSA history. Since then, we have consolidated all of the information into one webpage, ensuring that the content is current and the page is ADA compliant.

Special Publications
Each impacted employee and supervisor received a 12-page guide with information on the changes. Employees also received a paystub that showed what their paycheck would look like once the changes were implemented (At Auburn, impacted employees were scheduled to be paid on a different payroll frequency).

Follow Up
The increase to $47,476 never occurred after a federal district court blocked the rule from taking effect. However, the DOL eventually increased the threshold, to $35,568, to take effect on January 1, 2020. That change impacted approximately 30 employees at Auburn. Because of our work in 2016, we were prepared to share information about the new threshold and its impact in 2019.

As mentioned, we updated the FLSA webpage, which received more than 600 page views in 2019, and hosted two forums. Auburn implemented the change in late 2019, and the transition was highly successful. Want to see more? You can see more samples of our FLSA communications in the Forms and Templates section of CUPA-HR’s FLSA Toolkit.

Open Enrollment

Auburn offered online enrollment to employees for the first time in 2018. We wanted to share this good news with our employees.

Three months before our open enrollment kickoff, several HR pros met to discuss the year’s campaign. Ann Shore, executive director of benefits, commented, “Online enrollment is so simple, you can enroll in your pajamas.”

Bingo! We had our theme for 2018 and immediately went to work.

At Auburn, we have one of the nation’s best mascots — Aubie. He is a comical and lovable tiger who is loved by nearly everyone outside of Tuscaloosa or Athens. We asked if Aubie could enroll for his benefits in his pajamas, and if we could use those photos for our campaign.

Fortunately, he was excited to help. Thanks to our photographic services team and the Friends of Aubie student group, we scheduled a photo shoot at our student center. On a Friday morning, Aubie walked into a third-floor study area wearing a white t-shirt and plaid pajama pants. He reclined on one of the couches and started to review our open enrollment microsite.

A couple of days later, we selected the best photos of Aubie and created posters along with social media and digital signage with Ann’s phrase, “So easy, you can enroll in your pajamas.” We asked our HR liaisons and campus communicators to display posters and share images within their respective colleges and universities.

On social media, we pushed the Aubie photos along with other memes, using humor since we were sharing good news about online enrollment.

We also created a microsite and an open enrollment packet that was heavy on icons and graphics and a little lighter on text. For HR emails, we included an open enrollment icon in the signature line with a link to the microsite. We continued to send twice-weekly emails to employees, and scheduled meetings with colleges and divisions as requested.

Results from these efforts included:

  • The benefits information microsite recorded 2,000 unique page views and 3,000 total page views.
  • Approximately 3,000 employees used our online enrollment website, with only a handful of people asking for paper enrollment forms.
  • Our Facebook and Instagram posts reached more than 9,000 people.
  • And most importantly, only two or three people failed to enroll for their benefits.

Our campaign was awarded the prestigious Lantern Award from the Southern Public Relations Federation.

Closing Thoughts

We continue to learn what works and does not work for our employees. However, here are a couple of closing thoughts that can benefit any communicator and department:

  • Do not be afraid to imitate ideas — I regularly attend public relations programs and conventions where I am one of the few employee communicators in attendance. Whenever possible, I modify ideas to fit our target audience. In 2017, I visited HR communicators at three Atlantic Coast Conference schools. I’m not afraid to admit that I imitated their ideas for our website design and email signature line. Please feel free to share any good ideas that you have with me. I am happy to reciprocate.
  • Utilize HR liaisons to help share information — For important communications, we try to give liaisons several hours of advance notice. Not only does it help them be prepared for any questions that they receive, but they are also great proofreaders.
  • Talk to your non-HR employees — Whether this is in a focus group or casual conversation, ask how they prefer to receive communications. Do not be afraid to experiment. We are always learning more about what works and what does not.

John Powell says that, “Communication works for those who work at it.” It takes time to develop effective employee communications. However, the benefit to your employees and your department is worth the effort.

COVID-19 update from the author: Auburn University’s human resources team is committed to recognizing employees who are going above and beyond during these challenging times brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. HR leadership has been working to answer the ever-evolving questions received from across campus. Communication channels have not changed, but HR has begun utilizing social media more over the past several weeks.

The HR team copied an idea from MIT and launched a website where employees can be nominated and recognized for their efforts. In three weeks there have been more than 100 submissions. Many more submissions are expected to come in and will be published on the website. Several nominations have been shared on social media and have received terrific engagement. The HR team is also sharing articles about tips for working remote and creating special “Good to Know!” publications to help supervisors and managers navigate this unique period.

About the author: Patrick Johnston is the communications and marketing specialist for Auburn University. Prior to joining Auburn in 2015, he served as managing editor of the Opelika-Auburn News and the Eufaula Tribune.