Ensuring Open Communication in the Workplace

Ron Jones

HR needs to take responsibility for building a more open communication system within organizations.

I have recently completed reviews of workplace bullying allegations in two different companies. In each case, the allegations were directed at the behavior of a manager, and in each case other staff – who had not previously complained – joined in to support the complainant.

From my reviews within each organization, which involved extensive interviews with all staff having direct and indirect contact with both the complainant and the manager, I concluded that the behavior was inappropriate, but did not constitute bullying.

When I asked staff for examples of the behaviors that they thought constituted bullying, I was told of instances which really amounted to poor communication about decisions which the staff did not like. In other words, the managers were exercising their management prerogative in making decisions and exercising the powers of their office, but did so in ways that lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

In one case, the decisions related to extensive levels of change within the organization which were being resisted by some staff. In the other case, the manager was most likely setting out to prove their competence in areas of expertise which were contested within the organization.

In each case, the agency had established and implemented a set of grievance and dispute resolution procedures which were used by the complainant to articulate and express their issues. These procedures are important in safeguarding the rights of individuals within the organization and are integral to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.

However, what I found was that in both organizations there was a very closed communication system and a significant lack of trust amongst staff and between staff and management.

The style of management was based almost entirely on the power of the position which led to personal confrontations about the nature of the work being undertaken and the expectations placed on individuals. In both areas, the staff consisted of highly skilled professionals. They were working on complex issues that required exercising sensitivity and tact in their day-to-day responsibilities.

Interestingly, both organizations had a set of values which placed a focus on openness and integrity in dealing with customers and clients. In my view, these were not reflected in the behaviors which staff and managers were held accountable. In addition, there was a marked absence of the CEO in the day-to-day work experience of the staff.

Each of the two organizations lacked a sense that staff could openly question what was happening or engage in any proper discussion with managers as to the expectations of them, or the strategic direction or focus of their work. Staff meetings were ad hoc and there was little active participation in them when they occurred. Staff referred to either the absence of the CEO or their perception that the CEO was engaged in activities outside the organization and therefore remote from their interests.

It struck me: One vital element is for HR to ensure that the CEO is fully engaged with the staff in their organization. When the CEO is absent, it is not surprising that staff would resort to the dispute and grievance procedures, since it is the only way of being heard. My experience in organizations is that the further the CEO is removed from engagement with staff, the more likely it is that staff will use other means of gaining attention.

I am not suggesting that we should not have them. However, I am suggesting that we need to also have a culture where staff members feel that there is a greater level of openness and trust, allowing them to feel valued and engaged. In such an environment, it is far more likely that legitimate issues of concern will be raised in a spirit of mutual understanding and engagement. This results in what are often damaging confrontations and sometimes misguided allegations of bullying.

If HR is the body responsible for developing the dispute and grievance procedures, then they have an equal responsibility to ensure that there exists a culture within which such matters can be more effectively progressed.