Hello. Today, in light of the recent firing of 900 employees during a Zoom webinar, I’m thinking about their well-being. My sympathy to those employees—what an awful experience—and may all of them find much better jobs.
So, how do we, as #internalcommunications professionals, contribute to employees’ overall job satisfaction? First, measure it. Second, take action. In this post, I’d like to talk about employee communications audits; next week, ways we can turn what we learn into action.
Start where you are: Measure employee satisfaction, and go beyond the online survey if possible.
The best-run companies I’ve worked for had multiple systems for employee satisfaction measurement, as well as processes in place to act on the feedback.
Employee communication audits are conducted through confidential, one-on-one interviews. A human resources specialist could be dedicated to the job, or it could be conducted by an outside firm. Usually, the interviewer would visit one site or department at a time, cycling through all of them so that each would be offered interviews at least every three years.
Employees are asked open-ended questions like “Where do you get your information?” “How much do you trust the source?” “Is it timely? (Do you learn company news from the media before you hear it from your manager?)” “Is it what you need to know?” “How do you communicate with coworkers and managers?” “Do you feel that management listens, understands and responds to your concerns?” and “How can we improve?”
The information gathered is anonymous and, yes, anecdotal. It’s useful, though: communications audits offer actionable understanding about what’s working, the company’s culture, and employees’ trust levels. Audits can pinpoint roadblocks: maybe a location or group doesn’t receive corporate messaging or doesn’t trust it, signaling that a manager might need coaching, or the CEO should perhaps spend some time with the group, in person.
Maybe we need to look at ourselves: our corporate communications vehicles and tools, or our tone. (Are we a little condescending? Are we focusing on employees rather than product? Showing exactly how fellow employees are excelling, rather than dictating goals?)
Follow-up and confidentiality are crucial.
I changed the names in this post on LinkedIn....
Hello. Today’s post is just for fun. I’m grateful my first employee communications job was for a manufacturing company. For the holidays, I’d like to offer an excerpt from a book I’ve been writing for far too long: it’s a description of an American food-production factory, from a tour I took a few Novembers ago….
“Phyllis and I were invited to tour John’s factory, and we drove over in the morning. I love factory tours and had watched newspapers, airplanes, computers and ceiling tiles being made, but not food. My November visit coincided with the run-up before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the shop was banging. First we solemnly donned surgical costumes. Then we picked our way through a series of giant rooms, each with its own climate. We marveled as potatoes were sorted, skinned, cooked, milked, mashed, spiced, packed, scanned for foreign objects and imprinted with UPCs. John was never not working: wherever we went, employees stopped him. Does this taste okay; should we adjust this setting; how can we fix the consistency of this?
“Peering through a thick window in a closed door, we saw a dark room where the spices were kept. In spite of the fierce air-filtering system, the entire space was murky brown, shrouded in fine spice-dust hanging in arid, nearly motionless suspension. A lone employee in an astronaut suit, complete with helmet and oxygen tank, was measuring cinnamon, cloves and pepper from enormous vats into semi-enormous containers. We were allowed to open the door briefly, holding our breaths. The employee gave us a thumbs-up, moving slowly in her gear. The room next door was jungle-level humid, as if we’d skipped to another planet. It smelled good: cranberry sauce with oranges. Every surface was slick with juice and bits of fruit.
“We ended our tour at the beginning of the potato line, a massive, high-ceilinged space for spud intake, dark and chilly, smelling of earth. Climbing one of many built-in steel ladders, we clung to a catwalk about thirty feet high and gazed down at seven segregated oceans of loose potatoes. Each ocean was a truckload, the entire contents of a really big semi. They were kept separate, John explained, because even the same breed of potato grows differently in different places. The first spuds from each truckload were tested as they went through production, so the settings could be tweaked for those particular taters. We climbed down.
“Suddenly, John was needed in another part of the factory, and Phyllis and I were politely but speedily ejected from the building. As we were getting back into Phyllis’s car, we saw a semi bringing in another trillion potatoes. The truck backed up to an open bay, beep beep beeeeeeeeeeep, and the whole boxcar-sized container began to rise. Then it slowly tilted nearly upright, rumbling, and the back door was opened. Loose potatoes thundered through the air for quite a long time, disappearing into the giant intake room we’d just left. I enjoyed watching that.”
Hello. Today I’m thinking about change management and how to handle those first few months after you’ve joined a company. What if you’re asked to be a change agent, but even your bosses resist your suggestions? I learned by doing it wrong, that it takes time to get to know a new company, and even more time to build managers’ trust in your ideas and judgment. In my second employee communications job, I tried to change too many things too quickly. My managers eventually began to approve of my work, but they never relaxed enough to really trust me—a problem I might have avoided if I’d started more slowly.
That company was more than 150 years old, but no one had written its history. I wish I’d written about the company's heritage as my first project. Not only would it have helped me do my job better, but it would have signaled my trustworthy intentions and pro-company stance to my managers. As “advocacy journalists,” we create a storyline that shows a company in its best light. That story is its culture, its heritage. Done right, it’s a source of pride for employees and trust for customers and shareholders. Has that story been written at your company? Was it offered to you during your job interview?
Communications professionals working with older companies generally have lots of material to draw from. However, there are ways to tell the story of a newer company—and it’s extremely helpful to start creating a compelling narrative as soon as possible.
See if this sounds familiar: You’ve joined a great young company. Exciting! Maybe next year it’ll go public, but in the meantime, the 50 or so employees are working crazy hours to do the best job ever. You know the CEO and top employees personally; everyone is on a first-name basis. Morale is high. Six months later there are 300 employees, and after a year, more than 1,000.
In a fast-growing company, a CEO who is accustomed to working directly with employees will lose that personal connection. Unless there’s a communications professional and plan in place, morale will suffer. Even your top executives will feel a sense of loss when they walk down a hall full of busy strangers, where once they recognized everyone. Aspects of company culture, seemingly learned by osmosis when there were 70 employees, will be lost when those 70 people make up only 10 percent of the workforce. This is a risky time for the company's reputation, when a misunderstanding can lead to a post on social media … and just like that, a company’s shiny brand is not so shiny any more.
Founders, please hire communications professionals early on. Choose someone you like and respect, and give them access to you. Create an employee communications plan. You’ll be glad you did.
Thank you for your time today.
Hello. Today I'd like to talk about pinpointing corporate culture. Here’s a major lesson I learned about #changemanagement: If a company’s culture is difficult to identify and characterize, the culture is going to be impossible to move.
Typical roadblocks are a lack of documented company history (often the case with newer companies that grew quickly), frequent changes to the vision-mission-goals (watch for CEO turnover), or functional groups behaving more like factions than allies. I’ve found that researching and highlighting stories about the company’s origins and history can build a solid, trustworthy identity. In my opinion, it's a necessary foundation before I’d begin to introduce the strategic changes needed to move forward.
Looking for a job? You’re already assessing a company’s culture during your interviews for an #employeecommunications position. Take notes! This is your only opportunity to see the company’s culture with fresh eyes. Of course you’re doing the usual job-seeker research, but you can also analyze the company’s character. Is it clearly perceptible? What are your impressions, and are they being conveyed similarly by multiple interviewers? All of the messages you receive during the hiring process can be useful to you, not only as to whether the job's a good fit, but also as the beginning of your ongoing communications research if you join the company.
During interviews in the past, I wish I'd paid more attention to the communication team’s tools and what they say about the job. I once worked for a giant multinational that had no database of all employees’ physical or email addresses, negating effective “push” communications. Another big question: is there a flagship publication? (I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that sometimes “push” print pieces are a wonderful addition to the online “pull” emails and links. Print pieces last, and you can place them in your lobbies. They can be meaningful keepsakes. Employees can take them home, where their families can read them, too. Maybe I'm dreaming, but could an online magazine be supplemented with a print version, if only once a year?)
In what countries does the company operate? Do onsite managers have input on translations and cultural sensitivity? As to content, what strategic campaigns are currently in place? How is the style--is it boring? In my experience, the most engaging internal stories aren’t about products or services. They’re about the employees who make the products, solve the problems, deliver the services.
Once you’re hired, make note of how new employees are welcomed. Is it smoothly done, or chaotic? What does orientation (if any) look like? All of the elements that make up an employee’s experience with the company communicate something, be it good, bad, or indifferent—and the experience drives employee satisfaction.
Thank you for your time today, and have a great week.
... because as a freelancer I don't get the chance to mentor as many people as I'd like. In the hope it's useful, I'm offering some of the lessons I learned.
I’ll start with two things I wish I’d done differently: I should have heeded red flags before accepting jobs at a couple of places; and I should have spent more time absorbing a company’s culture and history before suggesting that it change.
What would you ask before joining a company as an employee communications professional? I think CEOs deserve scrutiny: Every company is unique, and CEOs have an enormous influence on culture. What is the CEO’s style? Is there turnover in the C-Suite? Does the board trust the CEO? Do you? What do you think of the CEO’s commitment to employees; diversity, equity and inclusion; and quality management/process improvement? What does the CEO think of your role?
Where does your employee communications department report? (Organizational Development within Human Resources was ideal in the aughts, rather than Advertising or Marketing, where it sometimes languished as an extra assignment shoved onto copywriters.) What’s your budget, and what are the current employee communications vehicles? Will you have a coordinating part to play in Vision/Mission/Goals and brand wording? Public relations? Speechwriting for executives?
Employee communications is a fun and fascinating career, and in my next post I’d like to share and learn about ways to assess a company’s culture and communications. I’d like to add one more item today: the employee communications department’s raison d’ȇtre. I once joined a company and was proudly shown my predecessor’s mission statement: “We will engage employees’ hearts, heads, and hands.” (True story.) I discarded it. That company’s employees there weren’t all that happy, and talking about their hearts and heads wasn’t helping. Besides, I was taught in the 1990s that employee communications exists because good leaders know it improves productivity and the company’s bottom line.
A thousand thanks to Tina Brock for having me on her interview series, "Into the Absurd: A Virtually Existential Dinner Conversation," on March 6, co-produced by Erica Hoelscher and Bob Schmidt of The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium.
This talk is personal rather than curatorial; if you're interested in the art and life of Jim Brewton, his biography and artworks are here: www.jebrewton.org. (And thank you for your interest!)
If you're interested in what it's been like to launch a quest for artifacts and artwork, please do check out the video (click image for link). I didn't get to mention everyone who has helped me during this journey, but I am deeply grateful to you all, as always. Thank you!
Stories behind uncovering Jim Brewton's long-hidden artwork, constructive mourning, and the joy of pataphysical graffiti: live on Saturday, March 6, 5 pm (U.S. Eastern)
Tomorrow I'll be talking with Philadelphia theater-maker Tina Brock about the work I've been doing to locate and preserve my father's artwork. I began my hunt in February 2008, thanks to encouragement from Michael R. Taylor, then-curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
While I learned about James E. Brewton (1930-1967), I documented the interviews and of course the artwork, and the whole story became a memoir, which I finally finished editing last week. I don't know where Tina will take our conversation tomorrow, but reflecting on the past 13 years has me feeling extremely grateful for the adventure.
In 2008 there wasn't a roadmap for building an artist's reputation from scratch, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful collection of oral histories: “Artists' Estates: Reputations in Trust” by Magda Salvesen and Diane Cousineau (Rutgers University Press, 2005).
Besides this site and the James E. Brewton Foundation site, I've also posted an essay I wrote about trying to run a nice, quiet, peaceful sickbed for my mother in her cabin in the woods during the summer of 2010. It's called "The story of the snake and the bears," first published by The Leopard Seal.
In 2014 I researched a poem included by my father in his 1964 print, The Pataphysics Times" (I'd searched the internet for the poem before, but decided to try again), and there it was: an artified version of “Tree-Leaf,” by architect Aldo van Eyck. van Eyck may have written it while he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, where my father worked part-time at the university book store. I decided to make a chapbook about the poem, and created a website as notes for the design. It's a lovely poem!
When I began the hunt for my father's work, I was aware of 16 paintings and prints. Today, that number has grown to more than 150 artworks. All of these finds were made through the help of friends, relatives, and strangers. My great gratitude goes to everyone who kindly gave me their time, talked with me, generously helped save the artwork, and pointed me in the direction of more information and works. Thank you; and thanks to all who appreciate and enjoy Jim Brewton's paintings, prints, constructions, and artifications.
Here's a link to the conversation with Tina Brock, March 6 at 5 pm (Eastern U.S./Canadian Time), on her "Into the Absurd" series: "Pataphysical Graffiti and Constructive Mourning: Uncovering Jim Brewton’s Long-Hidden Artwork."
Tina Brock is Producing Artistic Director of Philadelphia's own theater of the absurd, The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC). Coproducers for "Into the Absurd," the online conversations Tina has been hosting during the pandemic, are: Erica Hoelscher, Associate Artistic Director, IRC, and Chairperson, Department of Theatre, Professor of Theatre, Lehigh University; and Bob Schmidt, Ways and Means Coordinator, IRC.
I'm looking forward to talking with Tina tomorrow, and we hope you'll join us--or check out the recording later on IRC's Youtube channel.
In January, my husband and I took a long cruise around South America. At about 7 p.m. on Feb 20, a night and a day’s sail from Puerto Madryn and heading SE to the Falkland Islands, my husband was in the shower and I was gazing from our balcony at the empty Argentine Sea. Suddenly I noticed what looked like an upright whale, standing on its tail. Breaching? Practicing its ballet moves? Why didn’t it move? I got out my not-great binoculars and stared at the thing.
Looked like a single black sail, torn, with a mast a few feet higher than it. Lurching? If a wreck, why was it leaning along rather cleverly in the heavy wind? Was that a person clinging to the line, counterweighing the sail? Then it looked like two sails. Impossible to tell. I think we were about 300 miles from Argentina; I know we were about 180 miles NW of the Falklands. Any windsurfer out there would be in serious trouble. But was it anything other than a weird wreck? If a wreck, why hadn’t it sunk?
The Captain of the cruise ship was usually chatty, cheerfully announcing things several times a day, like “You see these rocks here; this is not the Horn” and “Dolphins on the Starboard side.” So as we left the lone black sailing thing in our wake, I expected to hear some kind of explanation. None came. Five minutes passed, and I decided to call someone. What if I were a windsurfer near death from cold and exhaustion, and a cruise ship chugged merrily by without even radioing hello? I would be very discouraged.
I checked out my options on the cabin telephone. Messages, Housekeeping, Room Service … I opted for Passenger Services and got the usual harried yet bored individual. I stammered that I saw a Thing, a black sail-like Thing, way out to sea…. The dude said he’d tell the Captain right away. So I hung up. Beat of 10, and a call came from the head of Passenger Services. Could I describe the thing my husband saw? I said I saw it, and it looked like two black sails or a whale standing on its toes.
Five minutes later, a tall and flustered Aussie, second or third Mate or something, burst into the cabin and straight through onto our deck, introducing himself as he ran. Would I hurry up and show him what I saw? I said it was long gone, behind us. He grabbed our phone, punched some numbers and gabbled, apparently to the Bridge. The captain had already turned the ship around (!), and they told him to take me to the other side of the ship. The Mate grabbed my hand and we ran across the barky to the other side. He grabbed a steward in the hallway with his other hand, telling him to watch us as we broke and entered the nearest cabin.
We had turned around, and I hadn’t felt it in the slightest. There, right in front of us, was the sailboat. The black sails were now dark blue, with a logo, and there was a sailor on it. “Is that what you saw?” asked the mate, rather superfluously. I was greatly relieved that I had really seen something, if people were going to go turning giant cruise ships around on a dime. They might have thrown me overboard if I’d seen nothing at all. Mate got on and off the phone and told me, while running away again, that the captain said he’d been in radio contact with the sailor. He was fine, an Irishman going “Around Alone,” headed from France to New Zealand…. I didn’t have the bandwidth to find out if they meant the “Around Alone” race, or if the sailor was just alone and going around.
Anyway, I felt very proud and special for no good reason other than being vaguely involved in a momentarily interesting event. It was impressive how quickly the Captain had turned our great big wallowing cruise ship around; yet unsettling that no one on his watch, nor any of the other passengers, noticed or cared about the lone black sail. As Keanu Reeves's character says in the movie “River's Edge” (1986), “I didn’t think I’d be the only one to call.”
Thanks to my aunt Rebecca, another Brewton painting has been found! Here it is, "Cabin, Stream, and Willow Tree" (1963):
Jim and my mother, Barbara Holland, spent much of 1962 in Denmark, where Jim worked with Erik Nyholm and Asger Jorn. Barbara wrote a short story called "Cabin, Stream, and Willow Tree," published in Seventeen magazine's November 1962 issue. Although she kept most of her published stories, I can't find this one in her files. The New York Public Library doesn't have it, and Seventeen didn't answer my query.
I was just looking for the story a few months ago, and never expected the painting to pop up! A thousand thanks to Rebecca Holland Snyder for finding it in Virginia, and shipping it to me in New York! I hope someday to read the story.
At Armstrong, Joe ran the most unconventional of corporate offices. There was a hiring freeze when I started, so I was freelance, then part-time, then eased into actual employment. During my part-time days, I also worked part-time at the Fulton Opera House, as its public relations manager. Joe clipped a photo of the Fulton staff from a mailer (that's me on the far left, in the back), and left this on my desk at Armstrong:
Joe had a life-sized cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe in his office; she was skimpily dressed for, I think, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." She was there for years before Joe's boss said, "Too naked for corporate office: She must go!" Joe was despairing, so I brought in a spaghetti-strap red gown I owned for some reason, and we dressed Marilyn in it. Problem solved.
In 1991, an artist created a very costly rust-and-boulder installation in the square below our office windows, and Joe was wroth. He didn't like the art, and he didn't like the expense, and it annoyed him to have it arrayed under his nose....
Before I moved to Lancaster, I'd worked in public relations and programs for an arts organization, so I knew just the sort of spoof press releases, artist's statements and invitations to openings that would cause maximum horror when I created a complementary installation in Joe's office. The Armstrong advertising department's props were stored down the hall from our offices--a warehouse-sized wonderland. There I borrowed fake boulders and twisted-up bits of ceiling grid, elements of my first installation: "Movement and Stasis," at "Joe's Casa del Arte." I don't have pictures of it, but Joe had a wire mesh in-box on his desk, which I filled with river rocks. Hilarity ensued when Joe came into the office.
Looking back on those days, I'm surprised our neighboring departments didn't complain more often about the noise coming from our area.
Besides laughter, we made a lot of noise rummaging and moving furniture around. From his days in the Air Force, Joe brought a very enjoyable practice of "repositioning" to his department at Armstrong. When we saw furniture or equipment going to waste in another department, we'd reposition it in two stages. First, we'd reposition it to a conference room. After a suitable interval, if no one seemed to notice, we'd reposition it to the employee communications compound. We got a really cool light table that way, and desks and chairs and lamps and things. A whiteboard. Good times.
Thank you, Joe.
Past travels with a trusty camera; current work on James E. Brewton Foundation research and memoir
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