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iOn the Contrary-i They Hear It Through the Grapevine

Rather than replacing all that natural communication with officially sanctioned words, HR should try to do more of the opposite because the grapevine, which refers to all informal communication that occurs in an organization, is a positive, potent force.

November 1, 1998
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Last July, I traveled down the Colorado River through red sandstone canyons in 105 degree heat in a canoe. There were 20 of us altogether—10 canoes filled with two people a piece—and we were doing something my parents used to call "visiting." As we paddled, we talked. We discussed the river’s current, wondered what was for dinner and generally got to know each other better.

After stopping and setting up camp for the night, the group leader decided it would be fun to create something she called "a sharing circle." For the uninitiated, this is ostensibly a kind of personal bonding activity in which everyone sits around a campfire and divulges something deeply private about themselves, all in the name of getting close to complete strangers.

At the mention of the word "sharing," the other paddlers and I froze. Appalled, we asked, "Whaddya mean by share?" Hadn’t we been, in effect, sharing all day long? Why did we need a circle to complete the task? Almost unanimously, we decided not to participate.

The next week, I was back in my office thinking about the leader’s ill-fated attempt to organize our conversation. By trying to impose structure on what had been natural communication, she lost our trust and willing participation. Instead, she got 19 people with the same dumb look on their faces. A look that begged to know: "Is she serious?"

Communicate with employees, not to them.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because HR professionals have been committing the same blunder for years. Instead of having an ongoing informal dialogue with employees—and allowing them to do the same thing—HR wants to control every facet of what it calls "The Employee Communication Process." HR communicates to employees through memos, e-mails, newsletters, intranets, paycheck stuffers and town-hall meetings. They hear from employees through attitude surveys, suggestion boxes and 360-degree feedback. Then when employees want to communicate among themselves—about salaries, the Christmas party, whatever—HR wags its finger saying "uh-uh-uh" and then fires off a policy designed to stamp out the corporate grapevine (which employees then talk about behind HR’s back).

Rather than replacing all that natural communication with officially sanctioned words, HR should try to do more of the opposite because the grapevine, which refers to all informal communication that occurs in an organization, is a positive, potent force. Despite popular opinion of the contrary, it’s not only fast and candid, it’s surprisingly accurate. According to Beverly Davenport Sypher, communications professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, no less than 75 to 90 percent of information carried along the grapevine is factual. "Everyone thinks the grapevine is only about rumors," she says. "It’s not. An active grapevine is actually the sign of a healthy organization."

Think about it: If employees are talking to each other, they’re trusting each other. If they’re engaged in their work, they’ll share it. As Sypher says, grapevines connect people to organizational goals, socialize newcomers to the network and help all employees make better sense of their environment. This certainly proved true in the canoes: We got to know each other best when talking about the uncertainty of how to paddle through upcoming rapids. Simply stated, in today’s ever-changing team-based work environments, a healthy grapevine is exactly what organizations need.

But HR just doesn’t seem to understand. Instead of acknowledging and encouraging the informal network, HR tends to launch policies, procedures and directives from some remote corner office. As a result, employees are drowning in pages of company memorandum they don’t have the time or inclination to understand. Confronted with more manuals, flyers and brochures than they can possibly read, employees begin to look at one another and question, "Is HR serious?"

Become a trusted leader.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating elimination of formal communication methods—the lawyers would never let you get away with that, anyway. Employees have to know the official word on corporate initiatives. For HR pros to become truly effective communicators, they need to become active participants in the grapevine. Don’t rely on formal channels to find out what’s going on. Become one of the insiders that employees trust. When passing people in the hallway, take the time to talk, ask about their families and show concern for them as human beings. Over time, you’ll be part of the network employees rely on. Interaction is especially important after formal announcements have been made, explains Diane Gayeski, a partner with OnmiCom associates, an organizational communication and learning firm based in Ithaca, New York. "People learn in a social context," she says. Because of this, HR professionals should make a conscious effort to circulate among employees and interpret what’s being communicated formally.

So the next time you need to talk with employees about benefit changes, performance reviews or the upcoming Christmas party, don’t think only in terms of communication that can be printed out of a computer or shared in a circle. Think of what you might say if you were sitting with them in a canoe on the Colorado River traveling through red sandstone canyons in 105 degree heat.

Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 77, No. 11, pp. 25-27.

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