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Dear ReWorker: How Do I Successfully Communicate Policy Changes to Employees?

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Dear ReWorker,

With all the new laws, policy changes and recommendations lately, I feel like our handbook needs to be updated every three days. How do we successfully communicate these changes to employees? Given the high volume, it feels like more people are going to ignore them.

Signed,

Clearing Things Up

_____________________

Dear Clearing Things Up,

In the past four months, you’ve probably implemented and adjusted about 400 policies, sometimes changing the same one back and forth multiple times. When even the CDC reverses course on mask usage, how on earth is your Human Resource department supposed to keep up?

While you’re furiously researching new guidelines, double-checking with your employment attorney and scouring the internet for best practices, it’s possible to forget the most critical step: communicating with staff. (Luckily, you seem to be on top of that.)

Communicating policy changes can be tricky, especially when it’s information that employees need to know and act on immediately. Here are some ideas for getting that information out.

1. Don’t Use HR Speak

"The EEOC has declared COVID-19 a direct threat, and, as such, there is a suspension of the ADA when it comes to medical tests at work. You will have your temperature taken every morning."

That first sentence is your justification for why you’re taking temperatures, but your staff doesn’t know about the EEOC, direct threats or the ADA. Making that the focus of a policy change announcement will most likely make employees’ eyes glaze over, and they’ll miss out on critical information.

2. Lead With the What, Not the Why

Instead, lead with the action, or the "what." The "why," or your reason for putting a policy in place, is obviously important. It’s the larger problem you’re trying to solve, while the "what" is what you’ve painstakingly chosen as the best possible solution. Employees, however, are generally less interested in the "why"—especially when there are a lot of new policies to review.

Try this language: "During the pandemic, we will be taking temperatures every morning before you enter the building. Anyone with a fever of X or above or with other COVID-19-related symptoms (outlined below) will be sent home to recover."

Then, you can add more details, such as whether they will receive sick pay or not, how long they need to stay home and if they need to contact their doctor.

For hand-sanitizing standards, you could simply write, "Help keep everyone safe! Use the provided hand sanitizer when you arrive at work and every time you step out of your office." This messaging is clear and understandable.

3. Vary How You Distribute New or Updated Policy Information

If you have an online handbook and you simply update it, precisely no one will read it. If everyone has a company email address (though this isn’t the case as often as you might think it is), sending the policy change via email can be effective, but not completely. Consider some of the following channels as well.

  • Post a sign on the fridge in the breakroom (if workers are back on site).
  • Ask managers to communicate directly to their staff.
  • Send out a text message.
  • Mail information to employees’ homes.
  • Share in an all-hands meeting.
  • Share in a corporate messaging system, like Slack.
  • Do all of the above.

But when should you use which method?

Determining how to distribute information depends on how you typically communicate. If you regularly send out information via text message, this is a good way to go. If you’ve never done it before, employees may feel like it’s a weird invasion of privacy. If employees are coming back to work in three months, consider sending hard copy information to their houses ahead of their return. This will give them plenty of time to review the changes—but if they start tomorrow, this technique won’t work. Figure out where employees gather, what has been effective in the past and how you can track the exchange of information.

Depending on how significant a policy change is, getting it out there effectively can require multiple steps. In some instances, you may need proof that everyone has seen and understood it. Managers might have to oversee the collection of signed forms or ask employees log into the company website to acknowledge they’ve read it.

4. Prepare for Questions

No matter how much effort you go through to explain a new policy, you’ll get people who signed without reading, tuned out when their manager spoke or deleted the email unread. You’ll get people complaining that they were never told, that the policy is unfair and that you are a careless person for enforcing it. Be prepared. Do your best to answer questions and provide backup for the change—even if the how, what and why were all clearly explained in your communications.

People don’t like change, and there has been too much lately. Making sure you cover all your bases when you communicate a policy shift will help things go much more smoothly.

For more information on how to help your organization adapt, stay informed, and build a workplace strategy now and beyond this crisis, you can access these resources provided by industry experts and Cornerstone clients and partners.

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