Engaging Communication : Foundation for Good Employee Relationship

Harish Devarajan

Every Organisation depends on the aligned actions of all its employees to achieve its vision. This clearly underlines that Good Employee Relations is the most fundamental premise on which organizations operate.

There are a set of expectations and agreements which govern the relationships of people in any organisation. There are also different roles and responsibilities that people perform within an organisation. There are dynamic scenarios which emerge in the canvas of any organisation. All of these and more keep impacting the relationship amongst employees.

The medium of interaction between employees is Communication. The nature of communication has however changed dramatically over the years, especially with geographic expansion of organisations, growing specialization of people’s focus and the advent of technology. These have certainly increased the challenges with respect to Employee Relations.

With technological advancement communication has become faster and better. However, it has also meant a greater degree of impersonalisation of the communication. This is clearly a cause for concern in the realm of Employee Relations where the focus is not just on the mere transfer of thoughts but more importantly on the expression of feelings.

In the arena of Employee Relations the crux of communication is its engaging nature, the impact it has in the minds of employees and the spirit it evokes in the hearts of people. This has continued to remain as the unchanging determinant for Good Employee Relations.

The more we communicate the more we will relate to each other. The more we focus on engaging communication the better will be our mutual understanding. As mutual understanding grows, stronger the relationship will become.

In this article I aim to share some of my perspectives on the essential aspects of Communication which go to make it truly engaging and hence key to Good Employee Relations. These are based on my own professional experiences.


Authenticity :

One of the key aspects that help to make communication engaging is the authenticity with which people communicate. If the intention is to build understanding there is a need to be genuine and authentic in expressing oneself with no attempt in projecting a false picture. Highlighting issues which are real and not brushing things under the carpet just because they are uncomfortable to deal with.

In Organisations, there are always different points of view and concerns. When one is discussing these with the stakeholders it is important to explore them with utmost objectivity and accept the possibilities of downsides. Explaining that the mere existence of a downside cannot be reason to move away from pursuing any agenda, and being willing to take the necessary steps to contain the downsides and being prepared with actions to address the consequences in case of unfortunate twist to the plans is true authenticity.

Authenticity is something that will be established over time, as people experience the approach of openness and genuineness adopted by the person fully aligned to the spirit of the relationship irrespective of the difficulty it causes or creates for them. Though this may seem to be a self limiting step in the short term, it is this which helps to generate the trust, which is core to sustainable relationships.

At the time of merger between Brooke Bond and Lipton, clearly there were overlapping resources and facilities. The concerns of the employees and their Unions around the negative consequences to them on this count were well founded. The respective managements decided to engage with them in an authentic manner, committing that an open and honest opportunity will be provided to all the people and units to enhance their capabilities / value before any rationalization decision be adopted, as also that a humane approach will be adopted in dealing with any situation of redundancy / surplus. The manner in which this authenticity was demonstrated and fulfilled helped to create the platform for many more such mergers/ acquisitions that followed and each of those were equally carried out with the trust and confidence of the people.


Sensitivity :

While it is important to communicate the true picture to the other persons, it is equally important to be sensitive to their feelings and context. It is often here that many people fail miserably. They either avoid sharing their true position or they do it without care for the way it lands with the other person!

It is when we take the efforts to understand the other person’s views, feelings and context that we will be able to gauge the difference between our perspectives and the likely effect on them of what we wish to communicate. If we are also keen on strengthening the relationship we will take the time and efforts to deepen and express our understanding of their situation so that they are able to suitably add / modify and ensure that there is no gap in that respect. This approach helps us to subsequently provide our inputs in a manner that is more appropriate and it also shifts that person to a state wherein they are willing to listen to our perspectives with patience.

It is often in the heat of the moment and in our excessive obsession with our own points of view that we lose our calm and communicate or act in a manner that is extreme and one that we would avoid if we had the luxury of time and reflection. Even if our views and positions are diametrically opposite, if we approach each other with adequate dignity and recognition of our respective context, it will ensure that we can engage in a meaningful fashion and hope to maintain / further a relationship in a sustainable way.

In the 80’s, I was the HR manager for a factory and I was focused on building a culture of high performance in the unit. I was educating all employees about the need to aim high and be committed to the stretch goals. At this juncture I was disappointed that one of the office staff (a lady) was unwilling to put in the extra efforts required to meet the deadlines of our stretch target. I was quite vocal in the expression of my disappointment in her attitude and said that it was creating a bad example to the workmen especially when it is by one of the office staff. She was really upset and went away sobbing. In spite of this conversation there was no significant effort on her part to stretch herself. This infuriated me even more and I expressed my displeasure to her at every possible opportunity.

After a few months, I came to realize that she had an extremely challenging environment at her home and it was a herculean task for her to manage the regular work schedule and her domestic situation. It was indeed commendable that she did not absent herself even for a single day and was making sure her regular work was completed on schedule. It was then that I felt I had been completely insensitive to her situation and had commented on her attitude, which in retrospect was completely off the mark. I then took courage to speak with her at length and apologised for my insensitive approach. It had a miraculous effect on her – she expressed her keenness to support in my mission, in her own way (within the limits of her challenging circumstances). This experience made me wiser to the issue around sensitive communication – it was a lesson for life.


Genuine two-way Communication :

Communication is actually a two-way street. It is not just about voicing one’s views and thoughts but it is also about listening to the other points of view. It therefore requires the willingness and patience on the part of all concerned to hear the others out and seek to understand their considered opinions and all its underlying issues. It is only when such genuine communication takes place that there is any chance of making progress.

Understandably the litmus test of any good relationship is the willingness on the part of all those related to forge agreement on certain issues and be considerate to the concerns of the other, even when there is not complete agreement. This fundamentally requires people to commit themselves to allow communication in its entirety to happen. It certainly takes two to tango and many to make opera music, hence the focus needs to be on building some basic ground rules.

The quality of communication that is fostered in any workplace is the single most important determinant for the robustness of the relationship that gets developed. This is something that every responsible person in the organization has to pursue. The shop floor supervisor, the maintenance engineer, the shift manager, the HR manager and the factory manager have all got to demonstrate commitment and willingness to engage in the process of genuine two-way communication.


Communication at every opportunity :

For good Employee Relations to get built, the employees need to engage with each other in different spaces and forums creating the opportunity to foster understanding of each other and thereby setting the foundation for healthy regard and respect for all irrespective of their specific choices and views on a particular issue.

It is when people confront each other in a limited arena and the only engagement is on a set of issues where there is a clear-cut disagreement, it invariably leads to hardening of stands and eventually to personal animosity.

It is in realisation of the above that organizations that seek to develop healthy employee relations encourage the involvement of people in various forums and events. The orchestration of sports and cultural activities is a very basic approach to build a positive relationship culture at the workplace. But to derive the full benefits, these have to involve not just workmen or staff but all levels of employees including the senior management. It is then and only then that these help deliver to full potential.

I remember my days in the Coimbatore Brooke Bond factory when I along with a few other sporty executives would as a habit play volley-ball with the workmen and staff every evening. The time we spent together on and off the field during that hour or so helped break position and level barriers leading to free and open communication. The confidence with which workmen started approaching us for resolving emerging concerns increased and we could resolve many issues which if allowed to linger would have become major issues. Even when we had major IR issues in the factory, the trust that had got built with the individual workmen helped to break through tough stand-offs.

When we foster wide ranging engagement on multiple issues at various levels, the chances of normal and respecting relationships are higher as compared to situations where the only engagement is around work and its issues.


Open Forum Communication :

The communication with the CEO or the Head of the organization has a special place in the hearts and minds of people. This is something that generates passion and energy amongst the people. The content as well the nature of the communication plays a key role.

In my opinion, a great role model for this aspect is Mr. Suresh Krishna, Chairman & Managing Director of Sundram Fasteners Ltd. I have had the benefit of watching him in action. Three decades ago when the concept of town-hall meetings were not buzzwords, he would routinely engage with the workmen of two shifts to explain his plans for the business and field questions from them. He would share his thoughts and feelings with the people in a simple and straightforward manner. He would exemplify his point with analogies and stories. This made it easy for people to remember his inputs.

The message from the head of the unit or organization, in an open forum, is a powerful way of setting the expectations of people. It also sets the tone for the rest of the team to follow and reinforce. The willingness of the titular head to receive feedback and questions in an open forum also shows the genuineness of the person to face reality without hesitation. This has now got replicated in so many places to great effect.

In fact the Trade Unions practiced this (Gate meetings) much before organisations adopted it as a regular employee engagement practice.

In fact Mr. Suresh Krishna went well beyond the open forum platform and he used to actually invest his time in engaging with individual workmen and their families on a routine basis. This helped him to develop an understanding of their aspirations and it created mutual trust. This created a deep impact on me and I adopted it as my approach to Employee Relations.


Appropriateness :

Communication is also about how we respond to others feelings and circumstances. Quite often, people ignore or respond in an inappropriate fashion to the problems or concerns of others. Not always is it an intentional behavior. But people who are adept at nurturing relationships develop the ability to sense the context of others and behave / relate appropriately.

Even in adversarial relationships, the turning point happens when there is demonstration by one side of concern for and recognition of the other’s situation and its consequences. This makes the other feel better understood even if not fully supported. Understanding is the essential ingredient for a strong and healthy relationship.

In quite a few manpower rationalization situations, I have had to engage with the affected people to help them move forward. They would invariably be shocked and disappointed with the decision, almost to the point of challenging the justice and fairness of it. While my impulsive response was to defend the decision, I found that it did not help matters (in any case, while the decision had been made with reference to larger interests and it had been made in an objective fashion it did not require any endorsement by the affected individuals), the reason for the engagement was to help them move forward. In all these meetings I found that it was better to allow them to vent their anger and disappointment. Without agreeing with their assessment I could express understanding of their feelings. This helped to build trust with them and then I could engage with them to focus on the future and the building blocks for the same.

It is when we are stuck in defending our position or even worse engage in attacking their position that we get into the vicious spiral of deteriorating relationship. The sensible way is to provide time and space for allowing the negative feelings to be vented. When things go wrong and the employees are reeling under the impact of their earlier misdeeds or decisions, often the taunting by the management “I told you so” does not help but only heightens the mistrust and widens the gap. It is in these moments that a sensitive engagement with them, empathizing with their difficulty and communicating a willingness to help them find a meaningful way out of the situation is what really helps.


Essence of Employee Relationship :

The essence of Good Employee Relations is the existence of a deep interest in nurturing the relationship. If one is really and truly interested in the relationship, one will be willing to do whatever it takes to build and strengthen it further. The genuineness of the relationship will manifest itself in the care, concern and commitment each one has for the other. The relationship will grow and develop as the realization of the mutuality of its benefit becomes clear to all.

The most significant way in which the relationship gets developed is through engaging communication amongst the people involved. This engaging communication is like the heart-beat of Employee Relations.

Harish Devarajan, Leadership Coach and Consultant.

An alumunus of XLRI, Jamshedpur. Formerly Vice President HR at Hindustan Unilever Ltd. Has 23 years of corporate business experience. Worked in TVS Sundram Fasteners Ltd and Hindustan Unilever Ltd. Since 2008 he has his own consulting practice “PeopleUnlimited” providing support in the areas of Organisation Performance and Leadership Effectiveness. (www.peopleunlimited.co.in)

He is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) accredited by the International Coach Federation (ICF), USA. He is also an Associate Coach with Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), a world renowned leadership development organisation. He is an Executive Director in totus HR School – a newly launched venture to partner HR professionals in their continuing development. (www.totushrschool.com) He is a Senior Fellow – Human Capital at The Conference Board.

Recipient of the “Exemplary Leader Award” for Excellence In Human Resources instituted by Employer Branding Awards 2007.

He has been associated with the National HRD Network since 1986. He is also the Immediate past president of NHRD Network, Bangalore Chapter.


People Unlimited is a vibrant entity with a passion for people.


Harish has more than 3 decades of experience in the corporate and consulting sectors. He started his professional career with TVS Sundram Fasteners Ltd. in 1985, and then in 1989 joined Hindustan Lever Ltd., India’s leading multi-national company.

D Harish,
Leadership Consultant