In my 20-plus years of doing employee communications, I’ve seen a lot of really bad, patronizing employee communication efforts.
One company actually had a poster by the entrance to the building illustrating, with pictures, the proper way to walk through the revolving door.
At another company, there’s a sign by every elevator warning employees to “not walk into the elevator backwards,” in case the doors open and the elevator isn’t actually there.
In my experience, the most patronizing communications are usually tied to either wellness or diversity.
One year, an employee publication ran a set of “20 Tips for Not Gaining Weight During the Holidays.”
Tip #1 was: “At office holiday parties, drink a beverage that you don’t like that much, so you’ll drink less.”
Tip #2 was: “If it’s a buffet, don’t get your own plate. Instead, share from other peoples’ plates.”
Well, wouldn’t that be a party!! Pour yourself a tumbler of motor oil to sip on and start snagging chicken wings off of the CFO’s plate!
And I’ll never forget the employee publication that ran an article titled: “Diversity is music to our ears.”
I don’t remember the lead verbatim, but it was something like this:
“Think of how an orchestra works. By itself, instruments like the tuba, the flute, and the snare drum can only accomplish so much, musically. But when the different kinds of instruments play together, magic can happen. People are like that too.”
What the hell do you think employees are going to think when they read that? Do you think Chuck in shipping is going to slap his forehead and say:
“I’ll be damned! We are like a symphony! That Wally in the mail room is a massive tuba if I’ve ever seen one, and little Dewayne in design is a major flute.”
No! They won’t say that. Employees will mock the article. Like they no doubt mocked the wellness articles, and the elevator and revolving door posters.
Communicators should always ask themselves a simple question before creating a piece of communication: Will the employees take it seriously?
I was reminded of this over the weekend when I went to the bathroom at a local restaurant. Now, most companies have a simple sign in the bathroom that reads, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”
And that’s cool. It’s probably there more to reassure the customers than anything else, and I doubt any employee would be insulted by it.
This restaurant, however, decided to take it a little further. It wasn’t enough to merely remind employees to wash their hands. This restaurant felt the need to train employees in the sophisticated art of hand washing. As if they didn’t really know how to do it themselves.
Here is the poster in question:
Notice the helpful illustrations!! And there are eight steps! This is like something you would expect to see in a classroom for kids with special needs. I take that back. It would be too insulting there, too.
I always like to play a fun game when I see this kind of stuff. I like to compare what is actually written in the article or poster, and what the typical sarcastic employee reaction is. This one would probably unfold like this, step by step.
What was written: “Turn on water, as hot as is comfortable.”
Sarcastic employee response: “Wait a minute! Water actually comes out of those things? Ha! And all these years I’ve been washing my hands in the toilet water!” Step two:
What was written: “Wet your hands.”
Sarcastic employee response: “What? What’s this? After turning on this magical fountain I’m supposed to stick my hands under there? Why? Why can’t I just rub my hands in my hair to clean them, like I usually do?”
What was written: “Add soap and lather your hands, including the backs and wrists. If you handle food with your hands, wash up to your elbows.”
Sarcastic employee response: “Am I serving chicken tenders or removing someone’s spleen? And this doesn’t even make sense. It should say, “if you handle food with your elbows, wash your hands up to your elbows.”
What was written: “Wash each finger and scrub for 30 seconds. Use a fingernail brush.”
Sarcastic employee response: Oh, Christ, now I’m confused. Is that 30 seconds per finger, or 30 seconds total? If I take 30 seconds per finger, that’s five minutes! When you add in the fact that I’m scrubbing myself up to my armpits, all my co-workers are going to assume I’m taking a huge dump in here! And where the hell am I going to get a fingernail brush? Am I supposed to buy one myself and carry it in my pocket? Does the company supply those? If so, where the hell are they?”
What was written: “Rinse hands under running water.”
Sarcastic employee response: “Thank GOD for step five. I would have walked out of here with soap up to my armpits and people would have thought I was doing weird things in here.”
What was written: “Dry hands using paper towel, air dryer, or other sanitary hand drying device.”
Sarcastic employee response: “So I assume that rules out drying them on my socks.
What was written: “Turn off the water using a paper towel.”
Sarcastic employee response: “Can I use the same paper towel I used to sanitarily dry my hands? What if the bathroom only has air dryers? Should I turn it off with my elbow? But I just washed my elbows!!!!”
What was written: “Check that hands and fingernails are clean.”
Sarcastic employee response: “They better be, after this operation. I’m ready to conduct open-heart surgery. But it doesn’t really matter, because my shift ended 23 minutes ago.”
I actually went to the sink in a bathroom in a restaurant and followed these instructions to the letter. It took me 21 minutes to wash my hands. Most of that was spent trying to dry my elbows with the hot air blower. If you think that’s easy, try it some time.
Thank God employees don’t pay any attention to this crap, or the whole restaurant would shut down.