Strengthening the comms and HR alliance beyond collaboration towards accountability

Collaboration is necessary, but insufficient.

As EVP and Chief Engagement Officer at Peppercomm, Ann Barlow helps clients inspire and motivate their people through near-constant transformation. She also leads a number of integrated communication programs with Peppercomm’s b2b clients. A Bay Area resident, Barlow has served on several boards of organizations dedicated to the advancement of women in business and beyond.

Sean Devlin’s story last month about the FDIC reinforces how essential and beneficial collaboration between HR and corporate communications is to the health of an organization. The FDIC incident also highlights a deeper issue: Both functions ultimately serve the corporation, not just employees. This creates inherent tension when addressing sensitive issues like harassment and toxicity.

Collaboration is necessary, but insufficient. When HR and corporate communications are seen by employees as part of the problem, both functions need to come together to advocate for a culture shift with the C-suite, prioritizing:

  • Stepping back — together: We and our HR counterparts – along with agency or consulting partners – are paid to do what’s in the best interests of the company or client. But in a crisis, company leaders can go to extremes to protect those interests, believing they’re doing the right thing. Meanwhile, we think the boss has lost perspective, perhaps (and understandably) considering only shareholder pressure. What happens next is crucial. Do we fall in line with the CEO because it feels a lot safer in the moment to agree? Do we even lose our own perspective and start drinking the corporate Kool-Aid instead of stepping back to gain a more balanced view? These uncertain moments emphasize why it’s so important for HR and communications to form a pact before a crisis occurs that they will seek perspective and speak truth to power when the time comes. As client account leads, we set up a process for gathering unbiased opinions from our colleagues who are less embedded, less emotionally invested in the client relationship. When a crisis happens, we talk through the situation and review information together to ensure we bring balanced perspectives and advice based on the entire set of stakeholders and potential scenarios. More on the latter below.
  • Address power dynamics: The reality is executive interests can trump employee concerns, particularly in toxic environments (as was reportedly the case at the FDIC). When executives are more consumed with pursuing their own ambitions and gratifying their own egos, the direct result is usually a toxic environment, and rooting it out may be borderline impossible. But sometimes an adverse event leads to fear, which in turn leads to more toxic behavior. Where the toxicity is more situational than entrenched, HR and corporate communications leaders can join forces to push for decision-making to be guided by company values, purpose and ethics.
  • Beyond litigation: Prioritize truth and fair outcomes over protecting executives and even minimizing litigation. Most corporate communicators and their agency partners have battle scars from going up against legal to prioritize employees, customers and ethics. The key is to present a compelling case in collaboration with HR that considers both financial and reputational risks, while appealing to your executives’ sense of responsibility and ethics.

Having data that supports your POV will help make your case. One company we worked with had a product recall, and there was a lot of pressure from its b2b customers to quietly pull product from store shelves rather than making any kind of consumer announcement since most of the contaminated product wasn’t yet in consumer homes. The Chief Legal Officer believed this would also help prevent customers from suing. As you might imagine, this was a popular position with other executives, but the reality was, some product had made it into consumer homes.

The HR and communication leaders took a deep breath and together made the case that such an action would ultimately damage the company’s credibility and relationships with its most important constituents. In the end, the CEO agreed, and the company received high praise from consumers, regulators, politicians – and customers.

The FDIC situation is a stark reminder that Collaboration is essential, but true accountability demands a fundamental shift in priorities. Only then can HR and communications fulfill their potential as advocates for employees and agents for a healthy work environment.

We’ll be exploring how Comms and HR can partner together across the employee journey during Ragan’s Employee Experience Conference, August 12-14 in Nashville. Register now! 

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