Earlier this year Fitbit, the wearable tech company, faced a surprising communication conundrum related to Pepe the Frog.
Pepe is a cartoon character that became a popular internet meme and was fairly innocuous until alt-right hate groups started using him to promote racist extremism, causing the Anti-Defamation League to designate Pepe as a hate symbol.
The problem? Fitbit had recently switched its employee online chat platform from Hipchat to Slack, and Slack allows people to create custom memes and emojis, said J.D. Norton, then-director of internal communications at San Francisco-based Fitbit. “So we had to have a Pepe the Frog meeting with HR about whether to ban the use of frog emojis in all communications.”
It sounds ridiculous, but it underscores the challenge of creating an employee communication policy that covers every possible scenario in a digital age. “Internet culture is constantly shifting in ways that you can’t possibly plan for,” he said.
So, how do you create an employee communication policy that keeps the company safe and provides employees with guidelines on what’s appropriate without reviewing every possible combination of words and characters? Step one is to make a plan.
“A lot of companies don’t have any communication policy, or it’s incomplete,” said Alison Davis of David and Co., a strategic internal-communications consulting firm in New Jersey. That puts businesses at risk if they have to reprimand an employee for using inappropriate language or misusing communication platforms, she added.
“Companies need to realize that these channels require governance and management, and if something goes wrong it needs to be dealt with immediately,” said Paul Miller, founder of the Digital Workplace Group in the United Kingdom. To do that, companies should establish a formal employee communication policy that includes input from multiple employee groups to ensure a diverse point of view that reflects the culture of the company.
Experts offer this advice on how to build a policy that addresses employee communication issues today and can evolve with the company and the technology they use:
- Don’t be too specific. Most experts agree that you can’t detail every single thing an employee is allowed to do or not do — nor should you try. “If you are too specific it can backfire if an example of bad behavior isn’t on the list,” Norton said.
- Align policy with culture. Identify five or six principles that define the tone and values of the company and tie those to how you want people to communicate, advised Miller. “Use those principles to frame expectations for interactions, whether they are live, on the phone or via other digital channels.”
- Define when and who. A good policy will include rules about when to use different channels, who to include in messages and when it is appropriate to mass email teams, executives or the whole organization, Davis said. “It’s easy to assume everyone knows how and when to communicate appropriately, but it’s good to provide guidance.”
- Provide guidelines for different channels. Not every communication style is appropriate for every interaction, Miller said. Casual banter and emojis might be fine for a Slack channel dedicated to employee gossip, but not in emails to the CEO.
- Include rules for data safety and privacy. Including guidelines around sending customer information, sharing documents via email and using company devices for outside communication can prevent breaches and loss of intellectual property, Davis said.
- Set expectations for breaking the rules. Not all communication mistakes are punishable offenses but they should have consequences, Norton noted. In many cases, coaching, communication training and a formal apology can be enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
It is also important to note that building a communication policy is only the first step.
“No one ever reads the communication policy,” Norton said.
Instead, companies need to use the policy as a framework for employee communication and training. Norton encourages HR leaders to incorporate these guidelines into onboarding and leadership training programs, to talk about them in company meetings, and to reference them when a communication issues arises or someone makes a mistake that gains attention.
“If you can point to a specific example then talk about how it links to back to the policy, it will have the biggest impact on future behavior.”