Engaged communication behaviours: why do employees enact them?

The challenge of employee supporting communication behaviours: contextual factors and managerial approaches influencing them

When we think about employee communication, we usually refer to organised activities such as the management of internal communication channels. But employee communication also includes individual employee communication behaviours, which can positively or negatively affect their company.

Positive employee communication behaviours - such as gathering and sharing information - are the outcome of employee engagement, whereas negative communication behaviours - such as not speaking out or making suggestions to managers - are derived from disengagement.

What are the contextual factors and the managerial approaches that sustain employee engagement? What is the role of planned employee communication in promoting it? And what leads to disengagement? To find out, the Working Group Employee Communication at IULM University in Milan recently conducted a survey into employee engagement in Italian companies. The results are telling to companies across Europe.

The survey was carried out between October 2016 and April 2017 and involved 375 companies representing Italian manufacturing and services companies with more than 500 employees randomly extracted from the Mediobanca List 2015. Respondents were managers responsible for employee engagement, such as internal or external communication managers or HR managers.

According to the model developed by the study, different macro-contextual and organisational factors such as economics, the company’s strategy and life cycle, its organisational model, the cultural tolerance for power distance and the nationality of the property, all affect the approaches adopted by companies to enhance employee engagement. The approaches to creating an engaging workplace climate are: inclusive employee relations, developmental human resources management and fair organisational justice procedures.

An inclusive employee relations approach is characterised by planned internal communication and managerial practices focused on encouraging an informal employee voice. Our survey underlines that, for inclusive employee relations, the most relevant managerial practices and internal communication initiatives are: dialogue between managers and employees to give information or to explain objectives; plans and strategies, project groups; top-down communication; informal conversations aimed at soliciting employee feedback; newsletters, blogs and e-mails; and conventions. Our respondents considered internal social media not so relevant, although today’s companies place a great emphasis on them. Communication between managers and employees is therefore vital for employee engagement, whereas formal initiatives of internal communication do not seem to be so important.

A developmental approach to human resources management goes beyond the mere accommodative management of human capital; rather, it focuses on valuing people. Our respondents stated that, in their companies, the most relevant HR management practices for employee engagement are job rotation, job posting, and training to develop personal skills.

A fair organisational justice approach depends on the fairness and consistency of procedures such as evaluating employee performance, disciplining and terminating employees and giving promotions and pay raises.

The survey points out that employee communication behaviours prevailing in most Italian companies are weakly engaged and the managerial approaches are disengaging: the employee relations approach is not inclusive but hierarchical, human resources management practices are not developmental but accommodative, and the organisational climate justice is unfair. The challenge is therefore to adopt the right approaches in order to increase employee engagement, encourage positive employee communication behaviours and prevent the disengaged ones. Moreover, internal communication activities are an important leverage to promote an inclusive employee relations approach but they are not sufficient if considered alone. Dialogue between managers and employees is an essential managerial practice to sustain an inclusive relational approach along with planned internal communication activities.

The study will continue with a survey on a sample of employees in order to compare their point of view with the one of managers.

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Alessandra Mazzei

Alessandra Mazzei is associate professor of corporate communication and public relations at IULM University of Milan. She is director at the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication, coordinator of the Bachelor in Public Relations and Communication, vice director at the Department of Business LECB "Carlo A. Ricciardi", chair of the Consortium Hofstede. Her primary research interest are employee communication and relations, voice and silence in organisation, relationship management and corporate reputation management

Alfonsa Butera

Alfonsa Butera is freelance consultant in communication and public relations. At IULM University, she is adjunct professor for the Public Relations and Communication course and she is responsible for the operational coordination of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at the Department of Business LECB "Carlo A. Ricciardi".