Category Archives: Employee Communication

Two Sides of the Same Fence: Consultant Becomes Client

The “Choose Your Own Adventure” series is a well-known set of children’s books, with a simple idea—you, as the reader, become the main character in each book.

Every few pages, the reader is given a choice about how to proceed. What happens next in the story depends on the choices the reader makes—choose one road and you run into a hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex; choose the other and find yourself aboard an alien spaceship.

While I’ve never actually faced a T-Rex or been lured aboard an alien spaceship, I have been lucky enough to “choose my own adventure” several times in my career—going from corporate manager to consultant and back again.

Although the view is a bit different depending on which side of the fence you’re on, it is surprising just how similar the jobs can be when you’ve seen both sides.

Corporate managers and consultants aren’t as different as you might think—beagles and dachshunds, not cats and dogs. For example, they both must:

  • Please their boss
  • Work within a fixed budget
  • Juggle competing deadlines
  • Protect their company’s profitability
  • Take pride in their work

Time spent looking at my work from both sides has greatly shaped my thinking and what I believe to be important keys to understanding one another’s roles.

Consultants: Make sure you understand the chain of command. Just as you work hard to satisfy your corporate managers, don’t forget that they must also satisfy their internal customers.

Early in the project, talk to your corporate manager openly about their corporate hierarchy and any challenges her or she faces. You are there to help them succeed. Always be prepared for last minute changes, delayed approvals or even a complete change of direction midway through. Accept this going in and be happier for it.

Consultants: Corporate cultures can be mysterious, but they can’t be ignored. If your corporate manager isn’t on board with your brilliant idea don’t take it personally. It might not be a fit. Frequently, the two of you can work together to map out an alternative that will still yield the desired results.

Managers: Be realistic with deadlines. I loved being treated as if I were my consultant’s only client, but I knew it wasn’t a monogamous relationship. My work had to be slotted in along with other projects for other clients.

Realistic project timelines keep everyone on the same page. They won’t solve every last minute emergency, but will limit the fallout. If you absolutely need something the next day, tell your consultant—a good one will move heaven and earth to meet the deadline. If you really could wait two days, give them the two days. Ask your consultants what works best for them—they’ll appreciate it.

Managers: Staying connected is not a sales pitch. A good consultant tracks what’s on the horizon and what might solve some of your company’s concerns. They also have knowledge about what other companies are doing. When your consultant calls to check in, talk to you about your needs and share how he can help, listen.

Consultants: Be attuned to your client’s personal style. Some clients enjoy frequent meetings in person, while others prefer a phone call or email. Staying in touch includes respecting your client’s communication preferences.

Everyone: Budgets are real. If you ask consultants what they hate most, I bet it would be talking to clients about money; they would much prefer to leave the accounting side to someone else. Consultant: Your job is to understand the limits of a budget and help a client maximize the impact of their company spend. Managers: Talk to your consultant openly about what you need to accomplish and what you can afford to spend. If you work together, you can usually find common ground that provides you with the services you need, while staying within your budget.

Bottom Line: The best manager/consultant relationship is like a great marriage—partners working together for mutual success. Good relationships run on honesty, trust, and managing disagreements with respect. Feel comfortable enough with one another to openly discuss what’s going well and what isn’t. Remember that no matter what side of the fence you’re looking over, you’re working together so that both sides can be successful.

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Money Talks

Communicating About Compensation

You’ve just completed a compensation review, made pension plan changes, or are about to award annual bonuses. Now you need to communicate the information to affected employees or the whole organization. This can be a stressful moment.

Communicating about compensation can be a vexing experience for both employers and employees. Employees don’t always trust that they are getting the straight scoop when it comes to how their pay stacks up against other employees, both in your organization and in the marketplace. And often they seem un-interested in the total value of their benefit and compensation programs. They simply want to be paid well.

On the employer side, managers often lack skill and/or credibility when explaining rewards to their direct reports. Complicating matters, confidentiality can become an issue when leadership struggles with identifying a comfortable level of transparency.

So, how can you effectively discuss pay with employees? 

Try Your Hand at Mindreading

There is a cognitive disconnect when it comes to pay. HR thinks about market comparators and midpoints, but employees think about their gross and net pay.

All successful employee communications are built from the perspective of the employee rather than the employer. When you put yourself in the shoes of your audience, you can address what’s on their minds and initiate a connection. Communicating effectively has more to do with building a relationship than it has to do with words and pictures. A message must resonate with your employees.

Instead of starting with the method or format of a communication, think first about your audience—what’s on their minds? Then determine the best way to deliver that message.

Over half of companies surveyed by WorldatWork in 2016 believe their employees do not understand the company’s compensation philosophy. A sound communication strategy starts with education on the basics such as philosophy and an overview of how programs are administered. Sharing knowledge about what guides these decisions helps lay the groundwork for establishing trust.


Whatever is driving your financial communication dictates the content of your message (e.g., special market pay adjustments, a pension plan freeze, a global compensation review, annual bonus awards, change in FSLA status, etc.). Regardless of the content, consider if and how your employees are empowered by the information you are sharing. Relate the message to all areas where the employee has some amount of control.

For example, a younger crowd may feel that a five-year vesting period is a long time away and retirement is a lifetime away. Focus on the near future first, and then distant goals. When communicating about performance and pay adjustments, direct employees to resources that explain things they can do to increase their pay. Also, empower the audience by creating space for questions and feedback. Don’t fear a negative response when it can be turned into an opportunity to increase understanding.

Nearly eight in 10 employees (77%) are engaged when workers strongly agree there is open communication, opportunities to provide input, a clear connection between current changes and the company’s future, and management support for changes that affect their workgroup.

Gallup Business Journal, “Managing in Tough Financial Times: Does Engagement Help?”Chris Groscurth and Stephen Shields (2016)

Open the Door

While it’s important that pay policies and benefit programs are documented and accessible, the communication can’t stop there. Two-way, face-to-face communication is crucial when it comes to financial matters.

Gallup’s 2016 study, The State of the American Manager, Analytics and Advice for Leaders, finds a strong correlation between employee engagement and regular meetings with managers. In fact, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times more likely to be engaged than employees whose managers don’t. Regular communication removes ambiguity and addresses concerns before they become problems.

Complete the Story

With most communication, the audience first tunes into the story and then decides whether or not the information is credible. Conversely, if information is watered-down by being vague or omitting too many details, credibility is shot.

But there must be balance—it’s easy to overwhelm when discussing pension plans, 401(k)s, and salary structures. The key is figuring out the appropriate hierarchy of the information and then organizing it in a way that creates a coherent and relatable message. A large amount of data can be comprehended if it is well organized.

If you leave out too many details your audience will look for alternative information sources. Coworkers, friends in the industry, and websites sit ready, willing, and able to provide your employees often inaccurate or ill-informed information. This information often comes with personal perspectives on fair salaries and other financial matters. You want to be a trusted source for information regarding your employees’ pay.

For example, if base salary levels or this year’s merit pool are below historical levels or competitor rates, explain why. Maybe your company rewards more through bonus than base. Or, training and development opportunities are far better than your competitor. Sometimes it has just been a bad year and budgets are tight. If employees perceive they are sacrificing pay, they’ll need a good reason why. Whatever the reason, don’t gloss over it—just say it.

Temper the Emotion

Financial messaging is wrought with emotion.

The strategy behind your company’s approach to pay is objectively based on market position, growth plans, the current talent market, and the last quarter’s returns. Yet, when you talk about compensation, the conversation can become very personal to the employee. Impersonal market forces can feel like an indictment of a person’s worth and value.

With any financial communication, it’s important that you demonstrate the company’s commitment—even passion—around the program and its impact on employees. However, be careful to detach this emotion from the facts. Don’t communicate “bad news” in a way that is self-congratulatory.

Constantly educate your workforce about the science behind pay and the work that went into creating a pay program or financial benefit. Remember that the program itself is not the company. It is just one component of the company’s business strategy. At the end of the day, your employees should be able to explain why they receive the pay or financial benefits they have and feel good about them.

Avoid the Fluff

Don’t waste your audience’s time—and risk losing their attention or trust—by filling your communication with rote content. Your audience will quickly tune out if it’s just more of the same thing they’ve already heard too often. While repetition has its place, too much can lead to boredom.

Include only what’s important and what will hit home with your employees. Find a good editor who understands the content. Creating succinct, effective material takes longer than creating lengthy pieces that often go unread. Make sure to allow enough time to create the right message.

Consider the ROI

There is no shortage of data linking solid communication practices to increased employee engagement, retention, productivity, and financial performance. Even in a downturn—especially in a downturn—spending a small fraction of your salary or benefit expense to communicate the value of compensation to employees can help you realize substantial return on your talent investment.

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Not Ready for Prime Time: 3 Stories from Healthcare Consumers

Being a healthcare consumer isn’t easy.

Recently I was explaining what Smith does to some friends. Pretty quickly the conversation turned toward health insurance and healthcare costs—mainly HSAs and high-deductible plans. Cutting to the chase, folks aren’t happy.

Our HR clients are tasked with explaining the necessities, values and details of what often is called healthcare consumerism. In theory, consumer-driven healthcare has three key components:

  • More healthcare choice, information and responsibility is placed in the hands of employees
  • Employees come out-of-pocket for more of their health spending
  • Healthcare consumer choices create market forces that control rising healthcare costs

It seems reasonable and I hope it’s working.

However, theory and reality often diverge. Listening to my friends share their recent experiences helped shed light on real difficulties employees have as healthcare consumers. It seems that the market they are accessing is largely detached from reality in terms of pricing, accountability and transparency.

These three stories are illustrative because my friends all tried to be proactive, informed and careful healthcare consumers.

Patient-friend A needed corrective jaw surgery that was outside the parameters of his health insurance. His treatment plan with his dentist, orthodontist and oral surgeon came to around $8,000. This included $900 for the use of an outpatient surgery center, which was to be prepaid—a real bargain.

When he arrived at the hospital, to sign forms and pay the $900, he was informed that the bill was now $19,000. That’s right—$18,100 more than what he was expecting. He was shocked. He called his doctor while in the waiting room to “freak out” and cancel the surgery. Upon closer examination, the surgeon’s office manager realized that she coded the order incorrectly, neglecting to note that the patient would self-pay. She spoke with the hospital admissions person, sent over the corrected order, and guess what? The bill went down to $900.

Doesn’t that give you pause? Why is an insurer/employer billed 20 times more than the hospital will take in cash for the same service?

Patient-friend B needed her gall bladder removed. She chose the hospital because it was in-network and her surgeon’s practice was also in-network. Since her deductible had been met for the year (the reason why she elected to do the surgery when and where she did), there were no out-of-pocket costs for the operation.

However, after the surgery was performed, she received a separate $4,000 bill from a contract surgical nurse who assisted during the surgery. This nurse was not in-network, so the insurance wouldn’t pay the bill. It took months of wrangling, threatening and fighting to get the hospital and insurance company to intervene.

What’s an unconscious consumer to do?

Patient-friend C (OK, this is me) tried to determine the cost of a doctor’s visit to decide whether to do it in December or January as part of my healthcare budgeting. My family has a $7,000 deductible and we manage most of our healthcare costs through our HSA and FSA.

The visit wasn’t critical; I could have waited until my annual physical and it would have been covered. Still, I wanted to close out my FSA. Use it or lose it. My doctor’s office refused (claimed to be unable) to tell me how much I would pay for a visit beforehand. The only option I had was to have the visit and find out how much it cost at the conclusion. The cost ended up being more than I had in the account, thank you.

I wouldn’t agree to this scheme with any other purchase.

Employees are depending on us.

A recent study showed two things about employees and consumer-driven health plans. First, employees don’t fully understand these plans. Second, they count on employers to educate them on the details. If the stories I’ve shared are part of a universal experience, we all have a lot of work to do to help empower employees to receive good care in a difficult marketplace.

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More Than a Job Description


More than a job description, a Role Portrait is designed to capture the nuances and particulars of a job. This is particularly useful for both talent acquisition and continuity planning.

A Job Description is Critical

The basic job description is:

“A written statement about a position that defines various responsibilities, duties, qualifications and reporting arrangements. It is used to match organizational needs with skills and competencies required to do the work.”

This is a foundational document in any organization. A good job description is essential for both hiring and allocating human resources. Each position in your organization needs a basic job description. The Society for Human Resource Management(SHRM) has hundreds of prewritten job descriptions to help HR professionals create and correctly format these important documents.

A well-written job description solves many issues for organizations:

  • Helps potential employees understand the job they’re applying for and how it fits into an organization
  • Defines responsibilities and expectations. This sets parameters for new hires, existing employees and managers
  • Fulfills legal requirements to stay in compliance with equal opportunity and anti-discrimination regulations

However, a job description has certain limitations:

  • Job descriptions can become functionally obsolete almost immediately, especially if maintained by an HR department that is removed from the day-to-day activities of the organization
  • Being a fixed document, it may not accurately represent the job during a period of rapid change
  • May unnecessarily confine and limit job performance, especially for high-performing employees with great initiative
  • Can create negative evidence in certain legal situations, like a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination
A Role Portrait is More

While it includes everything found in a good job description, the Role Portrait informs the job description from the unique vantage point of the position holder, immediate managers and associates.

The Role Portrait is a living document that is assessed and amended at least once a year, often as part of the annual review process. A Role Portrait is developed by the department where the job position resides rather than the HR department.

Often, the Role Portrait is written, or co-written, by a person holding the job. They are in the best position to understand and communicate the details of their role. In coordination with their manager, this employee can help the organization answers key questions about:

  • How time is allocated
  • How objectives and tasks are prioritized and performed
  • Key personnel and resources necessary to doing the job
  • Important functions and relationships that might otherwise remain invisible
  • How the job, objectives and tasks have changed from one year to the next

There is no one formula for how to create a Role Portrait. Much depends on the job itself and the people filling in the picture. The main emphasis should be on getting a current and complete picture of a specific role informed by those closest to it.

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