How Target hit the bull’s-eye in employee engagement

After layoffs and a customer data breach, the retailer worked hard to rebuild trust within and without. That included a successful focus on employee communication.

Target engagement efforts

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

In 2011, things were going great for Minneapolis-based Target Corp.

The retail giant was opening 200 stores in Canada, and pesky Amazon’s impact was little more than “a rounding error,” says Sean Madigan, senior director of communications.

Within a few years, a bracing front of cold reality blew down from the north. Hackers breeched Target customer data days before Christmas 2013, and the expansion failed, costing the company thousands of jobs.

On top of that, Amazon introduced an app that enabled consumers to scan merchandise on store shelves and compare the prices to those sold elsewhere—alarming retailers everywhere.

The data breach “was a really, really tough situation,” Madigan says. “Our sales fell right off a cliff. Our customers were really mad. We spent months and months and months trying to win back their trust.”

How did Target do that—and recover its good name? It turns out trust-building starts within, Madigan revealed in a Ragan Training session titled, “How Target disrupted its internal communications channels to modernize its culture.”

Through steps large and small, Target found ways to loosen up a staid internal culture and boost its staff loyalty. Here’s how:

1. Scrap the dress code.

Target communicators knew they would have to win hearts and minds if the company was going to thrive. In a buttoned-down culture, the most obvious start was to change the “oppressively rigid” dress code, Madigan says. In an employee meeting, the human resources chief literally snipped someone’s tie off with scissors.

“People went bananas,” Madigan says. “The Wall Street Journal wrote a whole story about it.”

2. Be genuine.

In 2013 Target introduced a new intranet on SharePoint. It included popular features, such as a group for parents called The Red-Hot Mamas, and one for dog lovers called The Bowwows.

“People loved that stuff,” Madigan says.

What they didn’t love, however, was their leaders’ stilted engagement on the platform. The problem was, some leaders didn’t like interacting on the intranet, so Target communicators posted for them, even boosting the posts through prearranged “likes” and comments.

“People were offended,” Madigan says. “It was clear these leaders weren’t writing the posts themselves. It was chockablock full of key messaging, and people could see right through that.”

What was needed was direct, genuine interaction.

3. Host ‘ask me anything’ sessions.

Leaders did draw kudos when they participated in an “ask me anything” digital town hall. This was held in a conference room staffed with one comms staffer to guide each executive.

Despite this hand-holding, the bigwigs fielded all the questions themselves. Yes, their answers had a few typos. So what? “No one died,” Madigan says. “And actually, people loved it.”

4. Hold a real, live town hall meeting.

Brian Cornell, Target’s first externally hired CEO, had all kinds of qualities one would want in a new leader, Madigan says. Among these was an appreciation of teamwork.

He had the company rent a huge space across the street from headquarters for a town hall meeting. Thousands of people headed over on their lunch hour.

“He talked about his career and his business philosophy and his family,” Madigan says. “And then he decided to take questions.”

He also circulated in the company itself, talked to people and shook hands, asking, “What are you working on? How can I help? What do you need?” Madigan recalls.

Employees loved the openness.

5. Launch your truth-telling vehicle.

The aggressive Canadian expansion failed, and Target prepared to shutter its stores in that country in 2015. HR and communications met in secret to draw up a plan for disseminating the bad news.

“The hard truth here is that 17,000 people were going to lose their jobs if we had to close our doors,” Madigan says. “And we did.”

In the wake of the layoffs, communications started producing a daily e-newsletter, Madigan says. “TGT Briefly” launched six days after the layoffs, arriving in inboxes at 6:30 a.m. every day. It contained precisely three stories of 150 words or fewer—never more. Target comms adopted a new tone: punchy, plucky, crisp, candid, direct, fun.

It was written “from the perspective of the company, but it’s not from the top,” Madigan says. “It’s got to the tone of your older and wiser cube-mate that sits next door, and kind of like your big sister who’s like, ‘Hang in there,’ but isn’t going to … sugarcoat it.”

Everything employees needed was in the body type or the headline. There were no links to eye-straining PDFs or quarterly reports.

6. Start a speaker series.

Communicators leaned on executives to find attention-grabbing speakers for the workforce. The CEO served up one of the foremost executive coaches in the world. The chief marketing officer brought in the CEOs of Pinterest and Snapchat. One of the most popular events was a session on tax policy.

The series has become an institution that is loved not just for the content, but for the bragging rights it gives employees, who can tell their spouses, parents or friends, “Guess what I did at work today.”

This makes the series a dynamic driver of engagement.

Says Madigan, “They just were hungry for understanding our strategy in a way that was more accessible, that was candid, that was straightforward.”

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