When Rumors Spiral, Communication Saves the Day

Aug. 26, 2019
Worker speculation can lead to confusion and fear. Here's how to solve it.

Throughout my leadership journey, the one topic that is consistently discussed is communication—or in some cases, the lack of it.

The old saying is that communication is the lifeblood of an organization. That is true, and it comes in many different forms and methods. However, I want to share with you one very important and misunderstood aspect of communication that I have witnessed across multiple assignments, different countries, different cultures, different employers … same issues!

I believe there is a common misunderstanding when it comes to what our front-line or shop-floor employees need. They need to give and receive information and be able to communicate effectively with leadership. This sounds straightforward and frankly not that complicated. However, what I have witnessed—and been told directly from employees when I sat down with them one-on-one—is that it’s not happening often or regular enough, resulting in what I refer to as the Rumor Mill.

When employees and employers have limited communication, the result at all levels is rumors.  When not equipped with hard facts, employees will create their own communication, which is very often misinformed, misinterpreted and incorrect.  Multiply that across different shifts, locations and perspectives, and you have a problem.  That problem manifests itself into frustration, anger, demotivation and fear.  I’m sure I don’t need to convince you of the resulting impact to your business.

When there is a lack of clear communication, employees will create their own. This point was really driven home to me in a situation I dealt with several years ago:

In a two-month period, I had three resignations from engineers that worked in our facility in the same department. There were six engineers in total.  Under normal course, I could see one leaving for a career advancement.  But to have three resign in a short time frame screamed “Red Flag.” 

When the third engineer submitted his resignation, I immediately asked to be included in the exit interview to better understand what was happening. 

I pulled the data on the department; there were no obvious issues.  The engineering manager was a good leader, the employee survey for the department was positive, the engineers all had good performance reviews etc.  So what would be motivating 50% of the engineers to leave?  I wasn’t prepared for the answer!

“What’s going on, why are you leaving?” I asked the third engineer in the exit interview. He was guarded and somewhat vague with his answer.  I pushed him, explaining, “we don’t want to lose great employees like you, and if there is something I need to fix, please tell me.” 

“I heard the company is planning to reduce the engineering department,” he responded, catching me off guard. “Where would this have come from?” I thought.  But it all made sense. The three engineers were the newest to the company—and if the rumor had been true, would likely be the ones that would have been reduced. But it wasn’t true!

My immediate goal was to clarify that we were not reducing the engineering department.  In fact, it was our intention, with all the new business quoting, to add to the department.  I shared with him our vision, the quotes we were working on and the structure of the department we wanted to evolve to and how that would add people and scope. 

In the end, he retracted his resignation and stayed with the company. 

Now I needed to understand how this happened.  After several days of asking questions, talking to the staff, and understanding, it was clear to me.  This entire situation, believe it or not, was created by a rumor that the company was losing work, and that we did not win work we had been quoting, thus a decision had been made to reduce engineers. 

I remember thinking how absurd this was: how a rumor could gain traction to the point where employees would make a career change based on it. 

It was also a very powerful lesson.  As I reflected, we had not communicated anything to our employees about the quoting, or potential new business, or positive changes we were planning.  We did not seek their input, feedback or suggestions.  We were silent as a company, and for that, we lost two great engineers because we allowed a rumor to be their truth.

So, what can you do to avoid that Rumor Mill running throughout your business?  The answer is not, “Just communicate more.”  It’s more complicated than that.  You must have a clear communication strategy that encompasses multiple methods and addresses all levels within the organization.

Here are a few suggestions on starting your communication strategy:

1. Seek input from your employees on how to improve communication.

  • What information do employees want from the company?
  • How often do they want it?
  • What methods would they like to receive it?
  • How would they like to communicate back to leadership?

2. Set expectations to employees on ground rules.  All communication should be conducted professionally and respectfully.

3. Think in terms of buckets.  Align your communication with your overall goals.  Seek feedback from employees on their ideas to improve company results.

  • Safety
  • Quality
  • Delivery 
  • Cost
  • Motivation

4. Develop a tiered meeting schedule.

  • All-employee meetings (Monthly)
  • Team meetings (Weekly)
  • Coffee Chats (Weekly)
  • Shift Meetings (Daily)

5. Develop a standard for tiered meetings.  What topics will be covered in what meetings?

  • Standardize the information to assure consistency to all employees.
  • Have employees sign off receipt of the communication.
  • And most importantly, publish the schedule—what will be covered in which meetings—and stay on track.  Management must commit to the schedule and adhere to it.

In our case, throughout the facility we also implemented communication televisions where we would share information related to SQDCM.  I included a personal message for employees weekly.  We added an “Ask the GM” box outside my office to allow employees to ask anonymous questions.  I had two rules. First, questions could be about anything, but must be respectful. Second, I would not respond to any questions that were derogatory or about another person specifically.

On average, I would get 20 to 25 questions a week. I would answer all of them and post the question (anonymously) and my answer on the communication televisions. Here are some examples of questions I received:

  1. I heard a rumor that our customer is shutting down for one week in October. Is that true?
  2. Can you explain more about how the lineside production boards should work?
  3. Can you tell us what the status is with our quality performance with customers?
  4. I heard that our customer is planning to visit us next week. Is that true?

We also implemented forms for employees to share their ideas to improve.  These were three-part forms that allowed the employee to write their idea down. They chose the appropriate category—Safety, for example—and took the top copy. The second copy went to their supervisor and the third copy to the safety committee.  All suggestions were tracked and had timelines associated with getting back to the employees on status and feasibility. 

There are many great ways to communicate to and from employees.  I recently wrote about employee engagement. Effective communication has a direct impact on engagement. I have witnessed this firsthand. When rumors dominate your shop floor, it drives confusion, fear, frustration and anger.  It completely demotivates the workforce, and in turn distracts employees from keeping their minds on task. This leads to potential safety violations or worse, injuries, as well as quality defects and productivity losses. 

On the other hand, a highly effective organization that, among many other things, communicates often and effectively with their employees will yield better results across all metrics.  Employees understand the goals of the organization, how they are measured, and the expectations.  Communication is open-door and does not allow for misinformation.  Employees are focused on the task at hand; they are motivated and feel appreciated as their ideas and suggestions are included.  They do not worry about management retaliation if they ask questions or make suggestions. They do not look for another job because they are satisfied.  And finally, they are proud to be part of a great organization that values them as their most important assets! 

Mark Whitten is the U.S. director of operations for Martinrea International, a Tier 1 automotive supplier. A passionate, results-driven senior business leader, he has 25 years of manufacturing experience, with strong general management qualifications in manufacturing operations, material planning/logistics, stamping, tooling and assembly.

About the Author

Mark Whitten | U.S. Director of Operations

Mark Whitten is the U.S. director of operations for Martinrea International, a Tier 1 automotive supplier. A passionate, results-driven senior business leader, he has 25 years of manufacturing experience, with strong general management qualifications in manufacturing operations, material planning/logistics, stamping, tooling and assembly.

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